According to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Agency (OSHA), ergonomics is the science of fitting the job to the worker. The term comes from the Greek words ergon, meaning "work," and nomoi, meaning "natural laws." The goal of ergonomics is apply scientific information about human capabilities and limitations to design of work environments, systems, and tools in order to make them as safe, comfortable, and efficient as possible. Ergonomics thus seeks to minimize the physical demands on workers and optimize system performance. An ergonomist is a scientist who studies physiological, psychological, and engineering design aspects of a job, including such factors as fatigue, lighting required, tools used, equipment layout, and placement of controls.
Although ergonomics officially came into being just 50 years ago, the principles have been understood for thousands of years. One just has to look at ancient hand tools to see how our ancestors intuitively understood the concept of physical fit. Even in the early 1900s, scientific management pioneers in time and motion study—such as the Gilbreths—experimented with the design of tools to find the most effective ways to do things. The real impetus for the foundation of ergonomics, however, came during World War I. The rapid development of new technology exceeded the limits of human capabilities in some instances. For example, poor design of controls and instruments in aircraft cockpits meant that pilots often made fatal mistakes.
Today, there are three main areas of specialization within the field of ergonomics: physical (the study of postures, movements, etc.); cognitive (the study of workload, stress, decision making, etc.); and organizational (the study of policies and processes). Experts recommend that companies apply the following basic principles of ergonomics when designing jobs:
With the increasingly automated workplace, ergonomics problems are relatively common. One growing area of concern for many organizations is the number of work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). MSDs represent more than 100 different injuries that occur when there is a mismatch between the physical requirements of the job and the physical capacity of the human body. In 2000, OSHA estimated that more than 600,000 American workers experienced serious injuries due to overexertion or repetitive motion on the job. Back pain and various cumulative trauma disorders (CTDs), such as wrist tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome, may all stem from work-related overuse. Specific risk factors associated with MSDs include repetitive motion, heavy lifting, forceful exertion, contact stress, vibration, awkward posture, and rapid hand and wrist movement. Designing the work and the work environment properly through ergonomics can prevent MSDs, or at least reduce their incidence and severity.
The federal government's involvement in ergonomics started in the early 1980s when OSHA began discussing ergonomic issues with labor unions, trade associations, and professional organizations. First focusing on reducing back injuries resulting from manual lifting, OSHA's efforts broadened during the late 1980s to include cumulative trauma disorders. Through the 1990s OSHA signed approximately 15 corporate settlement agreements to bring ergonomic programs to nearly half a million workers. Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors were the first three major companies to sign such agreements. In 1994 OSHA began to work on an ergonomics standard, but tremendous opposition developed that resulted in Congress prohibiting use of OSHA funds to publish any proposed standard during fiscal year 1998. Nonetheless, OSHA made certain ergonomics recommendations, launched an ergonomics page on the Internet, and held stakeholder meetings on ergonomics in several cities through out the country.
OSHA continued holding discussions with stakeholders while also working to refine its proposed ergonomics standard. The new standard was officially announced in November 2000 and took effect in January 2001. Among more than 1,600 pages of findings and recommendations, OSHA defined repetitive stress as a workplace hazard and ordered employers to take action to protect workers. The standard stated that employees who suffered repetitive stress injuries on the job were entitled to up to 90 days of injury leave at up to 90 percent of their regular pay rate. Representatives of a number of companies and industries criticized the new OSHA ergonomics standard as an undue burden on employers, while worker advocates praised the rules.
OSHA has attempted to assist companies in complying with the rules. For example, it released a video entitled "Ergonomic Programs That Work." The four employers featured in the video are Navistar, Russell Corporation, Woodpro Cabinetry, and Sequins International. Navistar established an effective ergonomics program using educational seminars with the help of a consultant, employee input, and widespread management support. Navistar's program led to a 66 percent reduction in workers' compensation costs. Similarly, Woodpro saved $42,000 in workers' compensation costs by changing conveyor levels and adding additional conveyors to reduce worker lifting. Russell Corporation found that small changes—such as new, adjustable tables and chairs—combined with adequate ergonomic training reduced the number of injuries by 50 percent over a six-year period. At Sequins International, Inc., consultants, workers, management, and the union viewed videotapes of employees working and then discussed ways to improve conditions. By replacing old chairs with ergonomically correct chairs, using new tables with adjustable heights, and launching an extensive educational program to share ergonomic techniques to prevent and correct MSDs, Sequins cut its workers' compensation cost from $96,000 to $4,500, and employee production and satisfaction increased significantly.
Even though statistics show that MSDs occur in large numbers and are costly to businesses; ergonomics remains a complex and controversial issue. Some employer associations and organizations oppose mandated ergonomic guidelines, believe the seriousness of injuries is exaggerated, and question what causes these injuries. Other organizations, however, view ergonomics as a value-added business strategy that can reduce costs and increase productivity.
Revised by Laurie Hillstrom
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