Ergonomics: The Science For Better Living and Working

What is Ergonomics?

The inter-disciplinary science of ergonomics explores human capabilities and limitations and uses this knowledge to improve the design of things that people use and the ways in which they work. Contributing disciplines include psychology, industrial engineering, computer science, biomechanics, safety engineering and a host of others.

Data and methods developed by the ergonomics profession are widely used to improve such things as office equipment and systems, technology for assisting disabled individuals, power plant control rooms, spacecraft, educational and training materials, medical devices, and consumer products.

Is Ergonomics a 'Real' Scientific Discipline?

Yes. Ergonomics is a globally-recognized science with a body of validated research findings and practices, and a worldwide community of scholars. The International Ergonomics Association, a federation of national ergonomics societies, has 29 member organizations, representing 16,000 ergonomists world-wide. In the United States, the profession publishes in numerous peer-reviewed journals including the quarterly journal, Human Factors, which began publication in 1957. There are more than 75 graduate and undergraduate ergonomics programs in accredited universities in the U.S. and Canada.

How Did Ergonomics Get Started?

In the United States, ergonomics--also known as human factors engineering --became a real concern during World War II for improving the performance and safety of military systems such as aircraft, naval ships, and large-scale weapons. Based on work conducted by early researchers, designers began to recognize the importance of reflecting the characteristics of the operator in the equipment they designed. Post-war research expanded into the commercial sector to include space systems, consumer products, industrial and office settings, and computer systems.

In Europe, ergonomics began with an emphasis on human productivity and work physiology. As the discipline matured, other fundamental objectives were recognized, such as the provision of safer and healthier working environments and the improvement of the quality of life. Today, the global ergonomics community is equally concerned with improving the design of products and systems, and with improving conditions in industrial and office workplaces.

How is Ergonomics Used?

In military acquisition, ergonomic principles are usually included in system specifications. In the civilian sector, companies adopt ergonomic principles to reduce the incidence of costly accidents in their facilities, or to make their products more marketable as user-friendly. In some cases, government or industry guidelines or voluntary, consensus-based standards may be appropriate.

Is Ergonomics Expensive? No. Ergonomics is a cost-effective means of product ehancement. Ergonomics applications-based on solid research findings-not only improve the workplace, but make products and processes more competitive in the world market. The result is an improved bottom line for business, whether by decreased worker compensation and health care costs, or by increased marketability of products. Here are a few examples from the workplace:

Incorporating Ergonomics Into the Manufacturing Process. Beginning in 1979, John Deere and Company, the largest manufacturer of agricultural equipment in North America, began using ergonomics principles to redesign and reduce physical stresses on the job. Employees were extensively involved. Since 1979, Deere has seen an 83% reduction in employee back injuries and within five years, worker compensation costs were cut by 32%.

Preventing Injuries Reduces Costs. AT&T Global Information Solutions in San Diego, California, a manufacturer of mainframe computers, analyzed its injury logs and identified its three most frequent types of injuries: lifting, fastening, and keyboarding. By making workstation improvements and providing proper lift training for all employees, the company s worker compensation costs dropped by 75% in the first year.

In a second round of changes, the company moved from conveyor systems to individual scissor-lift platforms and shifted from an assembly line process to allowing each worker to build an entire computer cabinet. These changes allowed workers to readily shift from a standing to sitting position. All told, the company s ergonomic changes enabled it to go from 298 work days lost from injury in 1990, to zero days lost to injury in l993 and 1994. This translates into worker compensation cost savings of $1.48 million over the period.

Faster Directory Assistance. The computer displays used by directory assistants at Ameritech, a regional telephone company, were ergonomically redesigned for easier viewing. The new displays enabled operators to answer calls more easily and reduced the time of each call. This change saved the company nearly $3 million a year across its five-state region.

Redesigning Equipment. Use of butcher knives for de-boning at a poultry processing plant was proving both inefficient and leading to extensive worker compensation premium increases. By introducing an ergonomically-designed poultry de-boning knife, not only were worker injuries greatly reduced at the processing plant--saving $500,000 in worker compensation premiums--but profits increased from more efficient de-boning.