Ergonomics done right.®
October 20th, 2008

A REAL Ergonomic Solution…

The creation and explanation of an Ergonomic Culture is an interesting stretch (see article in OHS Online).  It is a good example of non-professionals twisting the definition and application of ergonomics to meet a specific agenda. This is one of many examples of how people take the definition of ergonomics and expand or change it to include things it is not. While these applications may seem more palatable and/or easier to implement than actually changing the workplace (for example; methods to change behavior, teaching people to lift, stretching, or applying martial arts principles, etc.), they fail to address the root cause of the problem. Unfortunately these creative interpretations reinforce the public’s misunderstanding of ergonomics and ergonomic principles.

Occupational ergonomics has been defined by NIOSH as "…designing the workplace and job demands to fit the capabilities of the working population." Webster defines it as "an applied science concerned with designing and arranging things people use so that the people and things interact most efficiently and safely." Both clearly suggest that ergonomics is an engineering discipline aimed at the environment, not the people in the environment. In other words, ergonomics changes the work environment to improve how someone performs, rather than changing the way someone works in order to improve their performance.

The author of the above mentioned article indicates that one benefit of improved ergonomics is the reduction of risk factors that contribute to musculoskelatal injuries, but that isn’t the only benefit. Improving ergonomics, the fit of the workplace to the person, also improves comfort, eliminates non-value added motion, and removes barriers to performance, to name a few. The single purpose view of injury reduction is another limited paradigm that is continually repeated to the public and this further influences an already flawed understanding of ergonomics as an improvement tool.

The article contained a number of interesting bits of jargon that may cloud the issue as well:

  • "Ergonomic Behaviors" – isn’t this really just good or bad work practices?
  • "Ergonomic Injuries" – aren’t these injuries the result of exposure to poor ergonomic conditions?
  • "Ergonomic Culture" – isn’t this really a description of change management or another term for the safety culture of an organization?

Just slapping the word ergonomic on something doesn’t create something new. Proper integration of ergonomics into the quality and continuous improvement culture/process is where workplace changes really happen and performance barriers are removed and prevented. Unfortunately, occupational ergonomics continues to suffer from misinterpretation and malpractice. It has become the bandwagon for new gimmicks and methods that sound good but lack validity (ex. back belts, magnetic bracelets, stretching software, etc.).

Employers beware! Ensure the advice, direction and methods you use are valid (based on research) and effective.  Ensure your advisor is a qualified professional ergonomist (i.e. education and certification). Just as you would turn to a Certified Public Accountant or a Board Certified Physician, make sure you are turning to a qualified source of assistance with safety, engineering and ergonomic issues (CSP, PE, and CPE respectively).