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What is Ergonomics?

Ergonomics derives from two Greek words: ergon, meaning work, and nomoi, meaning natural laws, to create a word that means the science of work and a person's relationship to that work. Simply put, ergonomics is the science of making things comfortable and efficient. At its simplest definition ergonomics literally means the science of work, how work is done and how to work better. It is the attempt to make work better that ergonomics becomes so useful. And that is also where making things comfortable and efficient comes into play.

Ergonomics is commonly thought of in terms of products. But it can be equally useful in the design of services or processes. Ergonomics helps define how a product, service or process is used, how it meets you needs, and most importantly if you like it. It makes things comfortable and efficient.

What is comfort?
Comfort is much more than a soft handle. Comfort is one of the greatest aspects of a design's effectiveness. Comfort in the human-machine interface and the mental aspects of the product or service is a primary ergonomic design concern.

Comfort in the human-machine interface is usually noticed first. Physical comfort in how an item feels is pleasing to the user. If you do not like to touch it you won't. If you do not touch it you will not operate it. If you do not operate it, then it is useless.

The utility of an item is the only true measure of the quality of its design. The job of any designer is to find innovative ways to increase the utility of a product. Making an item intuitive and comfortable to use will ensure its success in the marketplace. Physical comfort while using an item increases its utility.

The mental aspect of comfort in the human-machine interface is found in feedback. You have preconceived notions of certain things. A quality product should feel like it is made out of quality materials. If it is light weight and flimsy you will not feel that comfortable using it.

The look, feel, use and durability of a product help you make a mental determination about a product or service. Basically it lets you evaluate the quality of the item and compare that to the cost. Better ergonomics mean better quality which means you will be more comfortable with the value of the item.

What is Efficiency?
Efficiency is quite simply making something easier to do.

  • Reducing the strength required makes a process more physically efficient.
  • Reducing the number of steps in a task makes it quicker (i.e. efficient) to complete.
  • Reducing the number of parts makes repairs more efficient.
  • Reducing the amount of training needed, i.e. making it more intuitive, gives you a larger number of people who are qualified to perform the task. Imagine how in-efficient trash disposal would be if your teenage child wasn't capable of taking out the garbage. What? They're not? Have you tried an ergonomic trash bag?
Efficiency can be found almost everywhere. If something is easier to do you are more likely to do it. If you do it more, then it is more useful. Again, utility is the only true measure of the quality of a design.

And if you willingly do something more often you have a greater chance of liking it. If you like doing it you will be more comfortable doing it.

So the next time you hear the term ergonomics you will know what it means to you. And I hope that is a comforting thought.

Cost vs Benefit
Most workplace modifications to incorporate ergonomics are relatively inexpensive, especially when you compare the cost of implementation to the benefits you can gain. Simple modifications such as adjustable chairs, anti-fatigue floor mats or footrests that accommodate various sized workers, or adjustable work platform heights, can significantly reduce workplace stress.

Applying ergonomics to your workplace can be very beneficial in alleviating workplace stress to employees that can result in:

Increased: productivity; efficiency; employee morale

Decreased: lost work days; employee turnover; worker's compensation claims; costly repetitive injuries; repetitive trauma disorders

One area that is often overlooked is training. Employees need to be trained on ergonomic issues if they are to help in identifying problem areas within their jobs. Employee participation is an excellent method of reducing ergonomic problems. Employees can often identify problem areas that could go unnoticed by looking through accident records or worker's compensation claims records. Employee suggestions need to be acknowledged and taken seriously. The goal of employee participation is to stimulate thinking about problem solving, create and maintain interest in safety and increase morale.

Employee Considerations
It is necessary for employers to evaluate the physical limitations of all employees to be able to supply their workers with ergonomically designed work tools, furniture and supplies. Getting individual employee feedback will give a greater perspective to ergonomic issues because each individual is different and may require special needs for ergonomic devices.

Regulations, Guidelines & Enforcement
In 2002, OSHA announced a Comprehensive Plan designed to significantly reduce ergonomic injuries through a combination of industry targeted Guidelines, Tough Enforcement, Workplace Outreach, Advanced Research and Dedicated Measures to protect Hispanics and other immigrant workers.

The goal in developing these industry and task specific guidelines is to help prevent and reduce ergonomic related injuries. They strongly encourage businesses and industry to develop additional guidelines of their own.

OSHA is now conducting inspections with a legal strategy designed for successful prosecution of those who ignore this issue. They will pay close attention to industries with serious ergonomics issues that have been previously and successfully prosecuted under the General Duty Clause cases. OSHA inspectors will be working closely with DOL attorneys to bring about successful prosecutions under the General Duty Clause.

The General Duty Clause, Section 5(a)(1) states:
(a) Each Employer
(1) shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees 
(2) shall comply with occupational safety and health standards promulgated under this Act

(b) Each Employee shall comply with occupational safety and health standards and all rules, regulations and orders pursuant to this Act which are applicable to his own actions and conduct.

Compliance Assistance
To help workplaces reduce and prevent ergonomic injuries, OSHA will provides assistance and tools to help you comply. OSHA will provide specialized training on guidelines as well as information on implementing an effective ergonomics program. To encourage companies to address ergonomic issue within their workplace, OSHA will also be administering targeted training grants, develop compliance assistance aids, create partnerships and develop a recognition program to acknowledge successful ergonomic injury reduction efforts.

Ergonomic Research & Development
OSHA's comprehensive plan includes the creation of a national advisory committee to advise OSHA on research gaps.

Sources for More Information
Comprehensive Plan To Reduce Ergonomic Injuries

Ergonomics: A Practical Guide, National Safety Council 

Questions & Answers

Q: When lifting heavy objects which type of back support belt is better; a rigid-style belt or a soft elastic-style belt?

A: Elastic-style belts tend to be more comfortable,while rigid-style belts are supposed to increase intra-abdominal pressure, which should provide more support to the stomach/back muscles and vertebrae.

Q:What is OSHA using as an enforcement tool without a specific ergonomic standard?

A: They are using The General Duty Clause CFR Part 1977.1. OSHA inspectors are focusing on violators of ergonomic issues that they have prior successful prosecutions.

Please Note: The information contained in this publication is intended for general information purposes only. This publication is not a substitute for review of the applicable government regulations and standards, and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion. Readers with specific questions should refer to the cited regulation or consult with an attorney.
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