Ergonomics is the study of work and, more specifically, the study of the relationship between the work performed and those who perform the work. The word was formed from a blending of two others: the Greek word ergon, or work, and economics, which originally meant household management.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) of the U.S. Department of Labor defines ergonomic disorders (EDs) as a range of health disorders arising from repeated stress to the body. These disorders may affect the musculoskeletal, nervous, and neurovascular systems. EDs include the various occupationally induced cumulative trauma disorders (CTDs), cumulative stress injuries, and repetitive motion injuries (RMIs).
Ergonomics focuses not on products, but on how producers can be better served. Today's ergonomics students analyze the workplace environment and tasks to determine how those components can or should be modified to better fit the needs and abilities (and the physical capacities) of the workers who perform those tasks in those environments.
Interest in ergonomics arose out of the specialization of work brought on by the Industrial Revolution. On an assembly line workers repeat one task, using one particular part of the body in one type of motion, for the entire workday. In more traditional occupations, workers performed many chores in the course of a day and lessened the impact of any one motion on any one part of the body.
Since the mid-1980s ergonomic disorders have accounted for 60 percent of reported occupational illnesses. The desire to reduce the resulting costs to employers in terms of workers' compensation, medical payments, and work hours lost has greatly increased the interest of all parties in this subject. CTDNews reported in 1994 that North American businesses paid $3.6 billion in workers' compensation benefits to employees suffering from CTDs, or nearly $4,000 per CTD case.
OSHA released preliminary national ergonomics standards in June 1994 to howls of protest from the business community. The administration's second draft of ergonomics standards, released in May 1995, were to be applied to high-risk employees only, and therefore covered less than 50 percent of the nation's workforce. Even this version of the standards raised controversy, and OSHA began redrafting the standards once again. Political considerations, namely the antiregulatory mood of Congress, stalled the project, and OSHA was unable to release final standards before the summer of 1999. In the face of Congressional deadlock, California took the initiative and passed its own set of ergonomics standards in 1997, forcing employers to implement procedures and provide facilities less likely to produce RMIs in their employees.
Businesses have begun to realize the efficacy of ergonomics, as General Accounting Office studies released in 1997 revealed that ergonomics programs reduce workers' compensation benefits paid for RMIs. A case in point, Texas Instruments, saw its payments for RMIs fall from $2.6 million in 1991 to $224,000 in 1996 upon implementation of an ergonomics program. Legal action has also forced employers to recognize the ergonomic needs of employees, with the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission ruling in 1997 that lifting and repetitive motion hazards could be cited by OSHA. Many companies have come to view ergonomics as an integral part of their workplace safety program, and now train employees to avoid RMIs and CTDs through their own behavior, and provide ergonomic equipment and facilities as well.
[ Joan Leotta ,
updated by Grant Eldridge ]
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