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What is Ergonomics?

Ergonomics comes from the Greek words ‘ergon’ meaning work and ‘nomos’ meaning laws. Ergonomics addresses both the needs of the person and the system, with a dual focus on optimizing well-being for both the person and the system/business/organisation. When we better understand the physical, psychological and social requirements of the person, we can better design and accommodate them in their environments (home, work, play etc). If the needs and requirements of people are adequately met through application of an ergonomics approach, then there will be benefits for organisations and businesses such as an improvement in productivity or output.

Ergonomics can be thought of both as a technology and a science and includes both research and professional application. The Human Factors and Ergonomics Society of New Zealand (HFESNZ) uses this definition: ‘Ergonomics is a technology that seeks to improve mental and physical wellbeing by optimising the function of the human-machine-environment systems’. The UK Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors uses a slightly different concept, that of ‘fit’ - the fit between people, the things that they do, the objects they use and the environments they work, travel and play in. If good fit is achieved, the stresses on people are reduced. They are more comfortable, they can do things more quickly and easily, and they make fewer mistakes. So when we talk about ‘fit’ we don’t just mean physical fit, we are also concerned with psychological, organisational and other aspects too. That is why ergonomics is often called ‘human factors’ or ‘human systems integration’.

The definition that has been agreed formally by members of the International Ergonomics Association (IEA) is: "Ergonomics is the scientific discipline concerned with the understanding of interactions among humans and other elements of a system, and the profession that applies theory, principles, data and methods to design in order to optimise human well-being and overall system performance. Ergonomists contribute to the design and evaluation of tasks, jobs, products, environments and systems in order to make them compatible with the needs, abilities and limitations of people."

concentric-rings-ergonomics.jpg Ergonomics has three main domains of knowledge and practice:

  • Organisational ergonomics: Optimisation of socio-technical systems, organisational structures, policies and processes in: communication, crew resource management, work design, teamwork, participatory design, cooperative work and management
  • Cognitive ergonomics: Mental processes, perception, memory, reasoning, and motor response affecting: mental workload, decision-making, skilled performance, human-computer interaction, work stress and training human-systems design
  • Physical ergonomics: Human anatomy, anthropometry, physiology and biomechanics in: material handling, repetitive movements, work related musculoskeletal disorders, workplace layout, safety and health

Ergonomics (or Human Factors) has people as a central focus of concentric rings representing increasingly complex spheres of human-system interaction with the world. Ergonomists use a co-operative participative approach to match (optimise the fit between) tasks, equipment, workspace, environments, jobs, organisations and systems to the needs, abilities and limitations of people.