What is Industrial Ergonomics?

John Markley

Industrial ergonomics is the field of ergonomics focused on the study of how people use and interact with work equipment and workplaces, as well as the application of this knowledge to improve occupational efficiency and safety. This field includes the design of physical objects such as tools, workstations, and the layout and design of the workplace as a whole. It also involves less concrete areas, such as work procedures and organizational structures. In this context, industrial is often used in the word's broader sense to mean work in general, and so industrial ergonomics can encompass any form of labor. It is not limited to manufacturing, as the name may seem to suggest. It incorporates insights from many fields, such as psychology, human biology, and engineering.

Industrial ergonomics may help prevent repetitive motion injuries in factory workers.
Industrial ergonomics may help prevent repetitive motion injuries in factory workers.

The most prominent area of industrial ergonomics is the creation of safer and more effective workplace equipment and procedures, often called physical ergonomics. Occupational injury is often the result not of sudden events such as malfunctioning machinery, but of muscular and skeletal damage that accumulates over time from factors such as posture, muscle overexertion, and repetitive motion. Seemingly small factors in the design and operation of tools can be significant.

Muscle overexertion can occur from working in industrial settings.
Muscle overexertion can occur from working in industrial settings.

For example, if a hand tool is too heavy or has an awkward grip, it can cause injury by encouraging workers to hold it with their wrist bent, which is more physically stressful than keeping the wrist straight. Frequent exposure to vibrations can cause musculoskeletal damage. The shape of a tool's handle or grip can be hazardous if it puts too much pressure on the user's fingers or palms. Work gloves that are too tight can cause damage to the wearer's hands, while gloves that are too loose can make it more difficult to hold tools properly. A workspace that requires workers to stand with their spine bent, frequently bend or twist their body, or remain sitting or standing in the same position for long periods of time can cause muscular strain or put additional stress on the spine.

Better understanding of industrial ergonomics can greatly ameliorate these problems by aiding in the design of tools that are safer to use. Simple changes in work procedure such as how a worker stands when operating a tool, how often he or she changes positions, or how he or she lifts heavy objects can have significant health effects. Even among workers who do not perform extensive physical labor, factors such as chairs and desks that encourage good posture can make a difference.

The idea of designing tools and work areas to work more efficiently with their human users is probably as old as human tool use itself. Structures and tools from classical Greece and ancient Egypt demonstrate a fairly sophisticated understanding of what would now be considered principles of ergonomics. The first known written texts about designing a workplace are in Greek and date from around the 5th century BC.

In 1700, the physician Bernardino Ramazzini wrote De Morbis Artificum Diatrib, or Diseases of Workers, discussing workplace health hazards in 52 different occupations. In addition to studying external dangers to health such as toxic materials and smoke, Ramazzini helped lay the foundations for future development in ergonomic design by devoting attention to injuries caused by factors such as awkward posture and repetitive motion. The study of ergonomics as a scientific discipline was further advanced in the 19th century by the work of figures such as biologist Wojciech Jastrzebowski, who coined the word ergonomics, and engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor, a pioneer in scientific management.

Hand injuries can occur from repetitive use at work.
Hand injuries can occur from repetitive use at work.

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