Lesson 1: Introduction Ergonomics
Ergonomics is a word that has gained a lot of attention over the last fifteen or so years. It has appeared on talk shows, in news magazines, in the press, and in many other forms of public discourse. Throughout this time it has had many different meanings, depending on the speaker and the speaker ’ s agenda. This lesson uses a focused selection of the available meanings, including a pair of dictionary definitions, a definition drawn from the term ’ s root words, and more important than any of these, a practical definition — one that can be used by both professional ergonomists and people who do not have this detailed expertise but who are working to reduce workplace injuries and illnesses.
“ The term ergonomics was coined in 1950 by a group of physical, biological, and psychological scientists in the United Kingdom to describe their interdisciplinary efforts to design equipment and work tasks to fi t the operator, ” say Plog, Niland, and Quinlan (1996, p. 347). The 1966 Random House Dictionary of the English Language defines ergonomics as “ biotechnology. ” The 1967 World Book Dictionary describes it as “ the study of the relationship between individuals and their work or working environment, especially with regard to fitting jobs to the needs and abilities of workers: The essential nature of ergonomics is the convergence of the disciplines of human biology (especially anatomy, physiology and psychology) on the problems of Man at work. ” The word has its roots in the Greek words ergon , meaning “ work, ” and nomos , meaning “ law ” (Brauer, 1994). Thus it can also be taken to mean “ the laws of work.
A more practical definition is this: making the job fi t the people. This sounds simple, but it can be extremely complex. One needs to consider the full range of human beings ’ physical and mental capabilities to perform tasks. Some simple examples will begin to explain the complexity of the topic and the potential difficulty of solving ergonomic issues. The average male in North America has a height of approximately 5 feet 8 inches. The average male in Indochina has an average height of approximately 5 feet 3 inches. If you are designing a product to be used standing up and for global use, what height do you design for? If you are designing a workstation for use in North
America, do you design it for the 95th percentile (tall) male or the 5th percentile (short) female, knowing that there is about an 18 – inch difference in height? How do you design a workstation that can accommodate both fully able individuals and those with physical limitations? What characteristics should a control system have to enable individuals to always do the right thing at the right time when the system is operating 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, but people are still genetically programmed to sleep when it is dark and be awake when it is light? How do you design control systems with colored lights when approximately 13 percent of males are color – blind (primarily to red)? These are just some simple examples to illustrate that using a simple, universal approach to ergonomics does not help us in reducing the frequency or severity of injuries and illnesses resulting from ergonomic issues.
Because the topic is complex, it is easy to see why media and the general public do not understand what ergonomics really entails or why solutions are not always simple. At the same time, a solution to an ergonomic issue may be fairly simple when the people dealing with it take their “ we ’ ve always done it that way ” blinders off and think differently and creatively. Once they understand that there are alternatives and options that do not necessarily cost a fortune, all kinds of solutions present themselves to make things better.
This lesson provides an overview of ergonomics but does not go deeply into the medical, physiological, psychosocial, or prevention aspects of the topic, as there are multiple books, research papers, articles, and so forth, available to readers interested in pursuing these topics further. Applying public health concepts of identifying the problem trends and sources, isolating them, and then applying solutions to reduce or eliminate these sources can be of significant assistance to the people in the field working to reduce the frequency of ergonomic injuries.