The definition, domains and applications of ergonomics impact us all — whether we realize it or not.
One of the most frequently asked questions in a social setting is, “So what do you do?”
Everyone has experience answering that question. If you answer, “I’m a plumber” or “I’m an accountant” people immediately know and understand what you do for a living. Just about everyone has experience or dealings with a plumber and accountant and so they’re familiar with those professions.
But unfortunately, whenever I’m asked this question and I tell people the company I work for and the work we do, I’m met with looks of confusion.
Them: “Ergonomics? What the heck is that? So you make the weird looking keyboards?”
I’m then tasked with explaining what ergonomics is, the way we practice it and its practical applications in the world they live in.
Me: “Ergonomics is the science of work and it’s about fitting the work environment to the worker. We help industrial companies with ergonomics so they can help their employees be safe, healthy and productive. We also train their employees like workplace athletes so they’re using their bodies correctly and staying fit for work. Our goal is healthier people and more profitable companies.”
Them: (with blank stare on face) “Oh. Interesting.”
They might not have been too excited about ergonomics, but I am. The more I learn about it, the more I realize its practical applications in the world around us.
Whether you’re an ergonomics pro or you’re new to the field, it’s helpful every once in a while to take a broad view of what ergonomics is and how its fundamental principles can be applied. At the very least, you’ll be able to explain what ergonomics is in a social setting. At the very best, you’ll start to see how deeply the field of ergonomics impacts your world at work, at home and the places in between.
Definition of Ergonomics
According to the International Ergonomics Association, ergonomics is:
“Ergonomics (or human factors) is the scientific discipline concerned with the understanding of interactions among humans and other elements of a system, and the profession that applies theory, principles, data and methods to design in order to optimize human well-being and overall system performance.”
The word ergonomics comes from the Greek word “ergon” which means work and “nomos” which means laws. It’s essentially the “laws of work” or “science of work”. Good ergonomic design removes incompatibilities between the work and the worker and creates the optimal work environment.
Ergonomics draws on many disciplines to optimize the interaction between the work environment and the worker:
- Mechanical engineering
- Industrial engineering
- Industrial design
- Information design
Domains of Specialization of Ergonomics
According to the International Ergonomics Association, there are three broad domains of ergonomics:
“Physical ergonomics is concerned with human anatomical, anthropometric, physiological and biomechanical characteristics as they relate to physical activity. “
(Relevant topics include working postures, materials handling, repetitive movements, musculoskeletal disorders, workplace layout, safety and health.)
“Cognitive ergonomics is concerned with mental processes, such as perception, memory, reasoning, and motor response, as they affect interactions among humans and other elements of a system.”
(Relevant topics include mental workload, decision-making, skilled performance, human-computer interaction, human reliability, work stress and training as these may relate to human-system design.)
“Organizational ergonomics is concerned with the optimization of sociotechnical systems, including their organizational structures, policies, and processes.”
(Relevant topics include communication, crew resource management, work design, design of working times, teamwork, participatory design, community ergonomics, cooperative work, new work paradigms, virtual organizations, telework, and quality management.)
Applications of Ergonomics
The applications of ergonomics are everywhere and many books are written on the subject, so I won’t try to cover them all in specific detail here.
But consider this.
The definition of work is an, “activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result.”
That sounds like just about everything we do, and when you consider that ergonomics is about designing the work environment to optimize human well-being and overall system performance, you begin to realize that ergonomics plays a major factor in our lives – at work, at home and the places in between.
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