Ergonomics - what is it?

Ergonomists take into account the design of systems, processes, equipment and the environment. They also consider the tasks and activities required by humans, making sure that they are within their capabilities and limitations.

Occupational ergonomists design and modify the workplace and the work organisation to match the worker. They try to achieve the best fit between the worker and their environment. It is different from many others areas of health and safety such as risk management, where the primary role is to reduce risks of injury of diseases.

This work environment consists of both the immediate physical and social environment and the larger organisational environment. The immediate environment includes aspects such as the type of equipment or accommodation provided and local level interaction with fellow workers and supervisors. The larger environment includes matters related to work organisation, such as the level at which decisions are made and how much control workers have over their own work and work flow. In order to be effective in applying ergonomics, everyone must communicate and work with each other.

Scope of ergonomics

The human factors which ergonomists consider are wide ranging and include:

  • How people communicate with one another and how they work in groups;
  • The biological and physical characteristics of humans;
  • Individual differences due to age, fitness, gender or impairment; and
  • How people see, hear, understand and take notice.

Adjustability is also a part of Ergonomics

Tools and Equipment need to accommodate individual differences between workers.

Most people are familiar with the idea of making furniture and other equipment easily adjustable so that a range of people can use them in comfort. This is often how people have first heard about ergonomics. This idea of adjustability also extends to such things as:

  • Working hours eg. Flexible working hours; and
  • Design of packaging eg. Making the size of packages smaller so those loads can be varied to suit workers.

When do you need Ergonomics?

Ergonomics can be applied in a variety of ways and at different stages of design. Ideally ergonomic principles should be used at the 'drawing board' stage. Incorporating ergonomic principles into the design phase of any project can reduce long-term costs and problems arising from poorly designed workplaces and machinery.

Once the design stage has passed, you may also need to consult an ergonomist for remedial work if, for example, one of the following happens:

  • The quality and quantity of output is lower than expected;
  • There is high absenteeism;
  • Equipment is not being used or being used incorrectly;
  • Accidents are occurring;
  • Complaints are made about conditions or equipment.

Choosing Ergonomic Equipment

Equipment can sometimes be described as ergonomic without a proper basis in research and design. Ask what features make the equipment ergonomic, what research went into establishing the ergonomic design and where has the equipment has been tested.

You may also like to ask the advice of a reputable ergonomist and/or current users of the equipment before making a decision to purchase.

Choosing an Ergonomist

Since ergonomists can come from a broad range of backgrounds, it is important to choose a person with the knowledge and skills relevant to your particular problem or query.

It is important to check that an ergonomist has the appropriate training and experience to carry out the task required to him or her. Ask about previous ergonomic work and about qualifications and training.

See Also

  • A document Participative Ergonomic Blueprint [pdf] - from WorkCover NSW
  • Ergonomics in Australia - has useful information  on their website, including What is Ergonomics?
  • The Design Council (UK) has design information on its website. This includes details about ergonomics, information design and interaction design.
  • What is Ergonomics? from the Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors (also UK)
  • From British Colombia (Canada): a page on Ergonomics, with information for various industries, including worksheets. 

Last amended June 2015

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