What Is Ergonomics? A Definitive Guide

By:    Published: July 24, 2012

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Many people have heard the term “ergonomic” applied to certain objects, equipment, exercises or practices, but some of these individuals don’t fully comprehend what the word means. The idea of ergonomics is actually quite simple, but putting it into practice can be somewhat of a challenge.

What Is Ergonomics?

Ergonomics, which comes from the Greek words “ergon” meaning work and “nomos” meaning laws, is the science of designing jobs to fit workers rather than forcing workers to fit the job. The idea sounds very broad, but it has a practical approach. Essentially, ergonomics is about designing jobs so that they reduce stressors which may affect a worker. The goal of ergonomic design is to reduce injuries and discomfort while improving job satisfaction and productivity.

There are tangible ways that ergonomics can be demonstrated, such as designing a workstation to be more comfortable or adjusting a specific task to make workers less prone to injury. Other ergonomic endeavors may include improving indoor air quality or reducing excessive noise in the workplace.

Risk Factors

In any given workplace, there may be a number of ergonomic hazards, which are basically risk factors for creating discomfort or injury on the job. In addition, these hazards may also decrease job satisfaction and productivity. There are two main types of risk factors that lead to a need for better ergonomic design: physical and environmental.

The physical ergonomic hazards in a workplace are the objects or practices that increase the risk of physical discomfort or injury. Sometimes a health condition, such as carpal tunnel syndrome or tendonitis, can result from physical ergonomic hazards. The following are examples of common physical stressors on the job:

  • Repetitive motions, such as typing on a keyboard or using a manual screwdriver
  • Awkward positions, such as sitting hunched over at a desk or holding a telephone to your ear with your shoulder
  • Vibration, such as using a jackhammer or factory equipment
  • Excessive force, like when lots of physical exertion is required to lift or pull something
  • Contact stress, like when your elbow rests on a desk all day or your hands hurt from gripping a tool

The second type of ergonomic hazard – environmental factors – includes anything in the workplace which may indirectly affect the worker in a negative way. These hazards can also lead to health problems, such as breathing issues or hearing loss. The following are examples of some common environmental stressors on the job:

  • Excessive noise, such as building construction or loud machinery
  • Poor indoor air quality, which can lead to fatigue, congestion or headaches
  • Improper lighting, which can lead to eye strain and headaches

One addition to these basic types of ergonomic hazards is the unique situation that may occur when an employee has special needs. In these cases, it’s important for employers to find the best way to accommodate these individuals’ capabilities and limitations to create a safe and healthy work environment.

Ergonomics In Action

The first step to using ergonomics to create a better workplace is to identify any physical or environmental ergonomic hazards on the job. This is often done my surveying workers, but there are also some ergonomics experts who can evaluate a workplace and find areas that need improvement.

Once this has been accomplished, business owners can start to look for ergonomic designs that create a better workplace. The following are some examples of ways that managers, supervisors and staff members can create a better workplace through ergonomics:

  1. Provide and participate in ergonomic training. This training can provide helpful tips for ways to avoid discomfort or injury on the job, such as how to avoid eye strain at the computer.
  2. Use ergonomic tools and furniture on the job, such as ergonomic office chairs, wrist cushions for keyboard use or tools with soft-grip handles.
  3. Promote healthy work patterns by giving employees breaks or rotating tasks to avoid repetition.
  4. Encourage input from all employees to increase the opportunities for better ergonomic design.
  5. Follow work restrictions and advised procedures for certain tasks to avoid injury.
  6. Exercise, eat well and strive to be healthy overall to decrease your risk of discomfort or injury at work.
  7. Get medical attention or assistance when necessary.

These are the basic steps needed to ensure that a workplace has ergonomic designs in place that will create a better work environment for employees. It’s essential to view ergonomics as an ongoing process rather than a one-time review. Regularly providing employees with tips for reducing their discomfort and risk for injury and reevaluating your workplace’s ergonomic needs is a good practice for any manager or supervisor.

As more business managers become aware of the benefits of ergonomics, more offices, factories and other workplaces are implementing these practices. In most cases, making an effort to reduce ergonomic hazards helps to create a much safer environment and keeps employees happier and healthier.

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