Ergonomics Professionals Work in These Seven Environments
Ergonomics is the study of psychological and physiological principles in the design of equipment, tools, and spaces. It also focuses on how people interact with products and systems, as well as their occupations and places of work.
Typically, ergonomics professionals are concerned with how people’s interactions in the workplace affect their workplace performance. By improving the design of tools, workspaces, and so forth, ergonomics professionals can improve productivity, efficiency, and job satisfaction.
Related resource: Top 15 Master’s in Human Factors and Ergonomics
For example, an ergonomics professional might examine a worker’s station on an assembly line and analyze its layout. By identifying sticking points or repetitive movements the worker has to make, an ergonomic professional would be able to design an improved workspace that would eliminate those sticking points. The result of doing so would be greater efficiency and shorter production times.
Ergonomic professionals are often concerned with worker comfort, too. So, as a worker in this field, you might be asked to devise ways to improve the comfort of workers that are in front of a computer all day. Your solution might be to offer them standing desk and sitting desk options, improved lighting, and blue light filters for their computer screens.
While this application of ergonomics is different from the previous example, the goal is still the same – the more comfortable the employee is while working at their desk, the more efficient and productive they will be.
And while it might seem like the best place for an ergonomics professional is to work in a research and design lab, there are many other professional settings in which one could use ergonomics training.
Below is a list of some of the career settings you might consider as an ergonomics professional.
Government agencies often employ ergonomics professionals to help them evaluate and design improvements in workplace environments.
For example, you might be employed by the Department of Labor to research ways that worker safety can be improved in high-risk jobs, like oilfield work. As another example, you might work for the Department of Health and Human Services to make recommendations for improving access to health resources in urban areas.
But not all ergonomics professionals employed by the government work at the federal level. State and local governments also employ ergonomics experts to carry out similar job duties.
For example, a state department of workforce services might employ an ergonomics professional to develop ways to improve worker movements in an industrial setting. As another example, an ergonomic specialist might be tasked with developing a more streamlined program for unemployed workers to gain access to unemployment benefits.
Typically, government jobs might not pay as well as private-sector jobs. However, one of the best features of being employed by a government agency is having an excellent package of retirement and other benefits.
Manufacturing facilities may also employ ergonomics professionals. In these production centers, workers often have to lift heavy loads, perform repetitive tasks, or stand in the same position for a long period of time. This kind of repetitive work can result in musculoskeletal injuries.
An ergonomics professional on staff can reduce the risk of on-the-job injuries by reviewing processes and procedures and making recommendations for how the work environment can be improved. For example, an ergonomics professional might find that reorganizing a workspace can result in a reduction of repetitive tasks by 10 percent over the course of a workday. While this might not seem like a lot, over the course of a year, it can add up to far fewer motions required to complete the job.
As a result of this adjustment, the worker could see an increase in efficiency and production. At the same time, they could also see a decrease in their discomfort and a decrease in the amount of energy they have to use to complete the same tasks.
An ergonomics professional might be directly employed by a large manufacturing company. However, it is also highly common for businesses and organizations in the manufacturing realm to hire ergonomics consultants. So, rather than having a full-time job with one company, you would contract for a specified period of time to make improvements and then move on to perform similar work for another company.
Construction sites are another career setting for ergonomics professionals. When it comes to identifying job-related hazards, a construction site is rife with potential.
From identifying potential toxic materials to ensuring that workers have appropriate emergency training to assisting with accident investigations, ergonomics professionals have plenty of work to do on job sites.
What’s more, on construction sites, workers may perform repetitive tasks such as using a nail gun, jackhammer or saw. Heavy equipment workers may spend a long period of time sitting in the same position and reaching for different controls over and over again.
With an ergonomics professional on the site, the incidence of workplace injuries caused by strains and sprains from these repetitive tasks could be reduced. As an ergonomics professional, you might teach workers how to properly lift heavy loads or how to properly position their bodies while doing repetitive tasks to minimize injury.
Likewise, an ergonomics professional might evaluate the job site and make recommendations to improve workflow and increase safety for workers. This might include offering guidance on where and how to store supplies, how to properly use certain tools, or identifying ways to minimize hazards.
Worker training is a key component of this job as well. While some individual training might take place – such as training a newly-hired worker how to properly use a jackhammer – much of construction site training will be on a larger scale.
For example, you might conduct training with all site workers on appropriate procedures for evacuating the site in the event of a gas leak. You would explore things like maintaining open evacuation routes and identify emergency exits and procedures to facilitate quick removal of workers from the premises.
Scientific and Technical Consulting Centers
Scientific and technical consulting centers may also employ human factors and ergonomics professionals. These are often the types of places where factory floors, layouts, and office layouts and equipment are designed.
When an ergonomics professional is included in the design process from the start, the facility could enjoy higher productivity and lower rates of on-the-job injuries. For example, an ergonomics professional might provide input into the design of a factory floor that enables workers enough space to sit, stand, bend down, turn, and walk freely, that way accidental contact with machinery is minimized.
Ergonomics professionals might also be employed at scientific or technical consulting centers that work on the designs of tools and equipment. This is where design teams work together to develop tools that are intuitive and easy to use. This might be something as simple as a screwdriver or something as complex as an airplane cockpit.
For example, the ergonomics professional might work on the design of industrial sewing machines to ensure that the repetitive movements that must be made to work the machines are as ergonomically friendly as possible.
As another example, you might be asked to assist in the design of a new desk chair that provides improved lumbar support while minimizing pressure points for office workers that are in a seated position most of the day.
Again, these might seem like fairly mundane or simple tasks. However, adjusting the design of a tool or the layout of a workplace by even a fraction can have a significant, positive impact on the health and well-being of workers.
Hospitals are a popular job setting for ergonomics professionals as well. It makes sense, too, because there are many different ergonomics factors at play in a hospital setting.
In the hospital environment, you might work in human resources, safety or administration. For example, you may coordinate with hospital safety staff to design evacuation procedures that minimize the amount of time it takes people to exit the building from any given area of the hospital.
As another example, you might serve the other staff members of the hospital in order to lower the rate of on-the-job injuries for janitors, patient care associates, nurses, doctors, cafeteria workers, and laundry workers. This might entail reworking the cafeteria kitchen to include higher work surfaces to minimize back strain among cafeteria workers.
You may also serve hospital patients, working alongside physical and occupational therapists in order to help people prevent injuries after leaving the hospital. This could be something as simple as helping redefine how recovery rooms are set up to minimize the risk of injury to patients who are getting back on their feet. It might also be something more complex, like redesigning the control paddle on a hospital bed to be more user-friendly.
Ergonomics professionals can also play a part in how surgery unfolds. For example, you might be tasked with assisting in the development of a new layout for operating rooms that minimizes how many movements must be made for doctors and nurses to attend to their assigned tasks. This might include tasks like designing a new type of wheel to make moving equipment around the room more efficient or developing a new headlamp that gives doctors a more focused beam of light on the surgical area.
One type of ergonomics is cognitive ergonomics, which deals with the mental processes of a workload. This means that an ergonomics professional’s input could assist educational institutions in devising improved physical spaces and curricula that lead to better student learning and retention.
Cognitive ergonomics is concerned with how the mental workload can impact memory, reasoning, decision-making, perception, and other mental processes. By adjusting how things like desks are designed or arranged in a class, you might be able to enhance students’ ability to pay attention in class and retain the information they learn.
Likewise, an ergonomic professional might be consulted by a state’s department of education to add input to the design of a new set of state standardized tests. The more complex a testing format is, the more taxing it will be on the cognitive performance of the student. Therefore, an ergonomic professional could offer ideas on how to streamline how students interact with the test, which could help them improve their cognitive performance on the exam.
While cognitive ergonomics is most often performed in high-stress environments (i.e., 911 call centers and air traffic control centers), it certainly has applications in many other settings, education included.
A common workplace for ergonomics professionals is in their very own office. Private practice is a great option, particularly for ergonomics professionals that have a good measure of education and experience. It’s easier to parlay that experience into a self-employed career than it is if you are a recent graduate with little work experience.
In private practice, you essentially set the rules for where, when, and how you work, as well as for whom you work. You’re free to charge what you want (within reason, of course), work the hours that you prefer, and set up an office space in whatever location you like.
Typically, being in private practice means working with a specific type of client – like manufacturing industries or product design centers – where you can apply your work experience directly to an industry of your choice.
However, some ergonomics professionals that are in private practice will work with a wide range of clients. After all, ergonomics is an important component of a variety of work settings, from aeronautics to education to construction. So, you might consult with a client in one industry, and then work with a client in a completely unrelated industry next. Doing so could provide more interesting work due to the variety of your clientele.
Regardless of the work setting, ergonomics professionals play a vital role in increasing the health and safety of workers in all sorts of environments. Understanding what these professionals do and where they work could help a human factors or ergonomics student choose an area of focus when they apply for jobs.
Armed with the information presented here, you can direct your studies toward a more specific application of ergonomics. No matter which direction you go, there is an opportunity for growth, advancement, and professional satisfaction.
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Updated May 2021