A person who is thinking of earning a degree in human factors, ergonomics or a related area of study may want to know, “What are ergonomics?” In short, ergonomics is about having an efficient work environment. This could come through modifying designs for people for the sake of convenience and comfort. Understanding what ergonomics is, how it works, and what its benefits are could help a person decide if this is the right career path for their personal preferences and academic strengths.
What Ergonomics Means
Ergonomics refers to the science of designing a workplace to fit the needs of the users. It involves increasing efficiency and comfort and reducing workplace injuries that can result from poor design or workflow process. For example, in an office cubicle environment, the angle of a computer monitor and the distance from the chair’s seat to the floor can make a difference in a person’s experience of neck strain and back pain. In the fulfillment center, the positioning of conveyor belts can make a difference in a person straining their back to reach an item.
Goals and Purpose of Ergonomics
One of the purposes of ergonomic studies is to make a space fit the person who uses it. The goals of ergonomic ideology involve increasing productivity by reducing unnecessary, unnatural or repetitive movements. Another goal of ergonomics is to increase comfort and flexibility in the workplace. For example, a person who has to use a computer all day could benefit from having an option to sit in a desk chair, on a balance ball or stand while they do their work. A person might want to have all of these options available in order to reduce back, shoulder and neck pain and stiffness.
How Ergonomics Can Be Implemented in a Workplace
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, there are many steps in implementing ergonomic practices in the workplace. Those steps begin with providing and encouraging the support of management. Managers have to be on board and understand how an ergonomic design will benefit the bottom line. Worker involvement is the next step. Employees may have to be convinced of how ergonomics can reduce their discomfort. The following steps in the process include providing training, identifying the problems in the workplace design, encouraging the reporting of musculoskeletal disorders related to poor design, implementing solutions to reduce the risk of musculoskeletal disorders in workers and evaluating the progress toward ergonomic goals in the workplace.
The Impact of Ergonomic Design in the Work Environment
There are many positive impacts of ergonomic design in the work environment. In 2013, musculoskeletal disorders and injuries accounted for about 33 percent of employee injury and illness cases. If a person strains their neck or back at work, they will end up needing time off of the job in order to recover. They might file a worker’s compensation claim, which is costly to the employer and reduces their own income. Ergonomic designs can reduce musculoskeletal injuries at work.
One specific ergonomic concept that has come to greatly affect the production industry is that of the use of lean tools. Lean tools are tools, components, or systems of tools and/or components that work to significantly increase efficiency in production processes and enhance safety at the same time. “Lean” here means that these are components that lack inefficiencies or any frivolous, unnecessary, or unsafe movements or expenditures of energy or time.
One common example of a lean tool seen in many production-based companies is the kanban. Kanbans are systems that deliver necessary parts or other materials to an assembly line only as needed. In the past, assembly line employees would hold up a card that would indicate the need for more parts once needed. Other employees might then risk injury by trying to hand-deliver those needed parts. However, now this process is automated by machine in many places, and the kanban is that machine which precisely times and measures delivery to the assembly line area of a production facility.
An andon system is another increasingly popular tool in many production facilities. This is actually a computerized visual feedback system that acts as a sort of main point of status and communications for processes and workers on a plant floor. For example, an andon system might give visual information about the status of various machines, the speed of production, and if help is needed by a worker at that time. Anyone in the area can then see all of this data on a visual display board, and thus efficiency and overall safety is maximized over previous methods of communications regarding these various matters.
Jidoka tools and systems are yet another ergonomic and efficiency advancement seen via lean tools in many manufacturing setups. Jidoka are partially automated systems and individual tools that can automatically stop if a problem arises. With jidoka components, workers can work in more capacities at once and with more safety in place in the meantime.
Efficient Communications Methods
Efficiency in communication is a certain hallmark of ergonomic concepts. As touched on above, jidoka and andon systems in production-based organizations offer enhanced ergonomic communication methods. Aside from these tools and the manufacturing setting, such ergonomically-enhanced communications can be seen specifically in airports and train and bus stations.
Here, large scroller boards constantly provide up-to-the-minute data on the status of incoming and outgoing passenger services. These systems are fed info via automated and semi-automated means, and then they automatically communicate that data to masses of people needing that info. This provides a great aid to ergonomic matters through decreased need for unnecessary movement, much of that movement with luggage en-tow, around these terminals and thus much less risk of injury
Another example of ergonomic-enhancing communications methods today can be seen in the very popular headsets used in personal and business affairs. These headsets are worn on the head and provide a microphone, incoming audio, and a centralized connection that relays incoming and outgoing audio. There are many variations of this type of ergonomic communication tool, each with its own unique advantages. Despite the model though, these all reduce movement and distraction around the workplace and elsewhere, subsequently reducing ergonomic-related stress and injury.
Ergonomic Community Concepts
Entire communities also benefit from broad ergonomic concepts and methods. One example of this is in the layouts of many doctors offices, clinics, and hospitals. The designs of these facilities are often ergonomic in nature so as to encourage better and safer movement, check-in processes, waiting areas, communications methods, and workflow in these places. In traffic control patterns on city streets, ergonomic principles are being increasingly considered by way of more intelligent traffic light systems and the use of traffic roundabouts, and when there is less ergonomic consideration here, many studies show increased congestion and ultimately physical and even mental driver stress. Ramps in place of steps, anti-slip surfaces, and automatic doors all help to aid in the fight against ergonomic-related stresses and risks.
Modern workforce management practices arguably utilize ergonomic principles as much as any other area of society. These practices are designed to increase workflow, foster better and more concise communications, direct worker traffic and movements, and even better the success of special events and other special situations. There are entire workforce management systems and software that are increasingly popular that can help to automate the management of all aspects of entire workforces, from payroll and worker scheduling to human resources matters and training procedures. Efficiency and physical safety, as we are finding, are shown to correlate here time and time again.
In the natural environment, increasing efforts are being made by many of the world’s nations to increase ergonomic harmony. Ergonomic methodology within the natural environment involves safety and efficiency with regard to people, plants, and animals. A harmonious balance among all of these and all in one place is the ultimate goal.
Much of this new wave of ergonomic approach can be seen in agriculture, new building and construction methods, architectural design, city design, and even conservation practices. This has been especially true as the world has become more conscious of ongoing encroachments on natural habitats and the subsequent damage this can cause to those habitats as well as humanity itself. Examples of ergonomic approaches to environmental issues include the inclusion of green rooves and buildings that actually foster external vegetative growth, park designs that maintain healthy plant and animal habitats while also allowing for substantial and safe human use and movement, and even the use of geothermal heating and cooling systems that minimize energy use and environmental impact while not creating human safety issues in the area otherwise.
Educational Routes in Ergonomic Degrees
The world of ergonomic principles is a vast and growing one. As such, the educational parameters surrounding this type of work are also continuously growing. Subsequently, at this time, there are many degree programs, classes, primary and sub-studies, certification programs, and other training routes devoted to the world of ergonomic principles.
One of the most common of these educational paths is that of the degree in ergonomics. This kind of degree spans from the associate level all the way to doctorate level, and is designed to leave few stones unturned in this area of knowledge. For students studying along this kind of degree path, there are a number of individual directions that can be taken. Some examples of these include but are not limited to:
- Bachelor’s of Occupational Health and Safety
- Graduate Degree in Occupational Health and Safety
- Master’s of Occupational Health and Safety
- Master’s of Rail Safety Management
- Master’s of Safety Science
- Master’s of Safety, Health and Environment
- Graduate Degree in Rail Safety Management
- Master’s of Environmental Health
- Master’s in Engineering Psychology
- Master’s in Human Factors and Ergonomic Principles
Professional Associations of Interest
For those seeking additional information on the vast world of ergonomic concepts, ergonomic career options, education, and more, there are a number of highly-relevant organizations that directly represent this area of interest or otherwise are involved as a secondary interest. The following are some of those recommended for further research into ergonomic subject matter.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, also known as OSHA, is a government agency that’s actually a branch of the US Department of Labor. OSHA oversees many workplace practices and acts as a resource for good and legal practices for employees and employers alike. As part of the wealth of resources found at the OSHA website or by contact through other means, the agency also offers plenty of information on ergonomic principles in addition to facts and stats regarding not utilizing those principles.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, popularly known as the CDC, is another government agency. This agency, as its name suggests, oversees a broad range of information and research regarding disease, health, and overall wellbeing. Plenty of authoritative information can be found by researching with the CDC including information on ergonomic principles. Examples of such info that can be found here include info on industrial hygienists’ work, ergonomic intervention approaches by individual industries, studies and stats on ergonomic-related injuries, back belt studies and facts, and numerous useful links to other organizations involved in ergonomic matters.
Office Ergonomics Research Committee
The OERC, or Office Ergonomics Research Committee, is a sizable consortium of companies and researchers devoted to all topics in the ergonomic area of study. Included in its goals are also those of prevention of ergonomic issues in the workplace and beyond. Anyone from the public can consult with the OERC for information on this subject.
The International Ergonomics Association
The International Ergonomics Association is widely seen as a sort of leading authority on ergonomic studies and is a cooperative made up of 52 individual ergonomic-focused organizations from across the globe. Based in Geneva, Switzerland, this organization can be inquired with by the general public and private companies alike. A vast wealth of information can be found here such as ongoing study info, news events relevant to the ergonomic field, statistics, best practice methods, and plenty more.
Applied Ergonomics Society
The Applied Ergonomics Society is yet another leading figure among the many organizations devoted to the study and betterment of ergonomic ideas across the globe. The website for this organization offers free access to a wide range of tools, resources, facts and stats, webinars, training opportunities, career opportunities, and even information on upcoming conferences and other events relevant to the subject. Anyone can inquire with the AES, although membership is also a valuable option for those interested.
Ergonomics can make a big difference in a person’s comfort, productivity, and well-being in the workplace. Ergonomics also has a place in the home environment, especially for a person who works from home or who has experienced some health problems related to repetitive activities or their posture. Knowing the answer to, “What are ergonomics?” could facilitate a decision for a college major or a job.