Ergonomics 4 Schools

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Ergo∑nomics Ergonomics is about 'fit': the fit between people, the things 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 concerned with psychological and other aspects too. That is why ergonomics is often called 'Human Factors'. 

Someone who is qualified in ergonomics is called an ergon∑omist.

Ergonomics and human factors - the same thing?

You could argue that they are, with the essential difference being that ergonomics has always been the more common term within the UK, and Human Factors is favoured by the North Americans. The two terms then would be interchangeable.  However, others would disagree and suggest that human factors is a more general term. A few years ago the terms were combined in the name of the American Society - now known as the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society.  Incidentally, the Oxford English Dictionary supports the equivalence of the terms.


The role of an ergonomist

Ergonomics (or human factors) is the scientific discipline concerned with the understanding of the interactions among humans and other elements of a system. The profession applies theoretical principles, data and methods to design in order to optimise human well-being and overall system performance.

Practitioners of ergonomics, ergonomists, contribute to the planning, design and evaluation of tasks, jobs, products, organisations, environments and systems in order to make them compatible with the needs, abilities, and limitations of people.

Derived from the Greek ergon (work) and nomos (laws) to denote the science of work, ergonomics is a systems-oriented discipline which now applies to all aspects of human activity. Practicing ergonomists must have a broad understanding of the full scope of the discipline, taking into account the physical, cognitive, social, organisational, environmental and other relevant factors. Ergonomists often work in particular economic sectors or application domains. These application domains are not mutually exclusive and they evolve constantly. New ones are created; old ones take on new perspectives.

Within the discipline, domains of specialisation represent deeper competencies in specific human attributes or characteristics of human interaction:

Physical ergonomics is concerned with human anatomical, anthropometric, physiological and biomechanical characteristics as they relate to physical activity. The relevant topics include working postures, materials handling, repetitive movements, work-related musculoskeletal disorders, workplace layout, safety and health.
Physical ergonomics is also concerned with how the physical environment around you might affect your performance.  'Physical' here means the kinds of things physicists know and love - heat, light, noise, dusts, chemicals, and so on.  For example, there's a thermal comfort range which suits people best - unless they are doing hard physical work, in which case they might prefer a cooler range.  Similarly with noise; at night, you might want things quiet so that you can sleep; in a club, you might want it a bit louder!
Physical ergonomics is about understanding the effects of these aspects of the environment on people, and in particular, the harmful effects.  Then you can design environments for people which won't harm them, and they might even enjoy the experience.

Cognitive ergonomics is concerned with mental processes ('brain work'), such as perception, memory, reasoning, and motor response, as they affect interactions among humans and other elements of a system. The relevant topics include mental workload, decision-making, skilled performance, human-computer interaction, human reliability, work stress and training as these may relate to human-system design.
Take Air Traffic Control as an example; the Controller has a screen (or two) built into the workstation, plus telephones and radios. This all presents the controller with information, which has to be understood, digested, predictions of problems worked out, decisions made, and then the decisions have to be communicated and executed.  Cognitive ergonomists would be looking at this process, and then trying to design the workstation, the whole system, the training, and the environment around the workstation to allow the process to happen swiftly and safely.  For example, the ergonomist might do a lighting survey, to make sure the ceiling lights do not reflect off the screens, so that the controller can actually see what is on the screen (it's difficult to make the right decision when you can't read the information).  Cognitive ergonomists might also be interested in how long it is reasonable to expect controllers to work, so that they are off shift before the probability of them making a mistake begins to rise.  They might also try to introduce more automation, to give the controller more time to think about the problem aircraft, without having to check on the 'safe' aircraft at the same time.

Organisational ergonomics is concerned with the optimisation of sociotechnical systems, including their organisational structures, policies, and processes. The relevant topics include communication, crew resource management, work design, design of working times, teamwork, participatory design, community ergonomics, cooperative work, new work paradigms, organisational culture, virtual organisations, telework, and quality management.
Organisational ergonomics is trying to organise people and the work to best effect. Staying with Air Traffic Control; the ergonomist might be trying to create a process that matches controllers to shifts; the aim here might be to ensure you don't have the situation where all the controllers on the daytime shift at the peak of the holiday season have just left training school, and there's nobody around with real experience of the problems.  This process that the ergonomist has designed would be used both by Human Resource people and by managers, to help make sure that this scenario doesn't happen. Another example;  in a steel rolling mill, the management has decided that they need to reduce the staff on each shift by 2 people.  Can this be done safely, for all the likely operational scenarios in the mill (including the disaster scenarios)?  How should the teams of operators be organised?  In the new jobs that come out of this, what training will be necessary for each of the team members?

Project work

Ergonomists can become specialists in certain areas, but many maintain a broad perspective to carry out wide-ranging projects. Here's a list of the kinds of things ergonomists worry about in any given project (automobile design, safety of underground systems, design of work, etc.). As you will see, in the brackets are whole disciplines that people specialise in (For sure, you won't be bored, if you decide to become an Ergonomist!):
Physical size and shape (anthropometry & biomechanics)
Physical needs (physiology & biology)
Body rhythms (chronobiology)
Human input characteristics (physiology, sensory psychology, physics)
Information and decisions (graphic design, psychology, information sciences)
Human output characteristics (biomechanics, physiology, psychology, communication studies)
Environmental tolerances (biology, psychology, forensics)
Data capture & analysis (statistics, business methods, graphic design)
Working practices & business processes (design, engineering, management, psychology,)
Organisational restructuring (organisational theory)
Culture & motivation (psychology, sociology)
Systems design (systems engineering principles, OR, AI, disaster studies)



good books

Ergonomics books

There are many good books that provide general information about applying ergonomics to a wide variety of topics. Among these are:

Bodyspace Bodyspace: Anthropometry, Ergonomics And The Design Of Work
2nd Edition
Author: Stephen Pheasant
Publication Date:
Paperback, 260pp
Taylor & Francis
click here to go to publisher's web site Ergonomics For Beginners: A Quick Reference Guide
2nd Edition
Authors: Jan Dul, B A Weerdmeester
ISBN: 0748408258
Pub Date:
10 May 2001
Paperback, 160pp
Taylor & Francis
click here to go to publisher's web site Fitting The Task To The Human: A Textbook Of Occupational Ergonomics
5th edition
Author: Karl Kroemer
Pub Date:
31 Jul 1997
Paperback, 432pp
Taylor & Francis

An Introduction To Usability
Author: Patrick Jordan
Pub Date:
20 Jan 1998
Paperback, 136pp
Taylor & Francis


Ergonomics FAQs

Q. Isnít ergonomics just a little part of product design?  Answer

Q. Can I ignore ergonomics?  Answer

Q. How has ergonomics changed since its conception? Do you agree that the focus is now on person-centred ergonomics i.e. if there is a problem between the operator and the environment, the environment should be shaped to suit the operator and not the other way round.  Or was this always the theory?  Answer

Q. How can ergonomics knowledge and methods be applied to improve the design process?  Answer

Q. I am looking for some specific examples where ergonomics is being used in real life and what is its importance.  Answer

Q. Does ergonomics have anything to do with buildings? Answer

Q. What are the benefits of ergonomics?  Answer

Q. How is ergonomics applied to manufacturing?  Answer

Q. Ergonomics draws its knowledge from various fields in the human sciences and technology including anthropometrics, biomechanics, physiology, psychology, toxicology, mechanical engineering, industrial design, information technology and industrial management. Which of these fields is the most important and why?  Answer

Q. Why has Ergonomics become so important?  Answer



Content: Tina Worthy, Murray Sinclair