As a species, we love tools and technology. We design and create things to save us time, make some aspect of life easier, and expand what we’re able to do and achieve. Ironically, we end up busier and busier, spending most of our lives working or playing with the tools we create.
This can cause serious problems, from stress and fatigue to a variety of musculoskeletal disorders (MSD’s), which drain time, energy, and money.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration website states, “Work related MSDs are among the most frequently reported causes of lost or restricted work time. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) in 2013, MSD1 cases accounted for 33% of all worker injury and illness cases.”
It also adds, “Ergonomics — fitting a job to a person — helps lessen muscle fatigue, increases productivity and reduces the number and severity of work-related MSDs.
But the benefits of ergonomics go beyond reducing MSD’s and the related losses of time and money. They can also impact the quality of our lives in some surprising ways.
The Chartered Institute of Ergonomics & Human Factors (CIEHF), a UK-based professional organization that “recognizes, protects, and promotes standards of achievement demonstrated by ergonomists and human factors specialists,” has produced two special reportsin the last several years highlighting case studies where ergonomics played a major role in improving society.
Far from being simply about the best mouse or workstation design, the stories range from designing smart roadways to enabling physical activity among visually impaired individuals to saving the lives of infants.
So what exactly is ergonomics?
The International Ergonomics Association states, “Ergonomics (or human factors) 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 optimize human well-being and overall system performance.”
Put simply, it’s about making our environment and the things we create and use fit our physical and psychological needs.
The term derives from Greek: ergon (work) and nomos (laws), and the basic concepts have roots that date back to both ancient Greece and Egypt!
According to Wikipedia, “One outstanding example of this can be found in the description Hippocrates gave of how a surgeon’s workplace should be designed and how the tools he uses should be arranged.”
The mythology of those times even included an anti-ergonomics supervillain known as Procrustes, a psychotic metalsmith who attacked innocent people, either stretching them out or cutting off their legs in order to make them fit a very particular iron bed. This rather graphic portrayal of the way we humans can be sometimes feel forced into a mold that doesn’t fit us has really stuck in the collective consciousness—the term “Procrustean bed” is still used today.
Fast forwarding to the Industrial Revolution, early experts focused on maximizing worker efficiency, for example in reducing the movements of coal miners and bricklayers in order to increase their output.
Fortunately, some forward-thinking Russian researchers realized that humans shouldn’t be treated as machines and that worker well-being ought to be considered as well. This led to the inclusion of psychological and sociological factors in the development of the modern scientific field of ergonomics.
In the Information Age, human–computer (and device) interaction has become a prime focus of ergonomics, as well as product design in general, including everything from electronics to kitchen tools to clothing. Various disciplines including design, psychology, engineering, biomechanics, and more combine to further the field and help ensure our technology works for us, and not the other way around.
How to Participate in National Ergonomics Month
Inspired yet? Great! Here are some ways you can get more ergo-active this month, and throughout the year as well.
- Move more! For office workers, this is one of the biggest lessons to be gleaned from ergonomics. We are built to move, and sitting or standing still all day takes a huge toll on our health and well-being. Set timers or use apps to remind yourself to change position or take stretching or walking breaks.
- Build healthy posture. Our bodies are a work in progress. While ergonomic equipment can support healthier posture, it’s up to us to develop good postural habits and maintain the proper musculature to keep us free of pain. One of the best ergonomics tools you can get is a mirror (or a video camera and monitor) that allows you to see your body position from the outside—you’ll be surprised!
- Advocate for an ergonomics program at work. Musculoskeletal disorders cost everyone involved—both workers and employers. No matter what your position in your company, get educated about the essential elements, and the benefits, of an ergonomics program and start talking with your colleagues.
- Get geared up. Invest in equipment that supports better posture and more movement, such as a sit-stand desk or an ergonomic seat cushion.
- Use what you have. Make sure the equipment you do have is positioned to support good posture, such as keeping your monitor at eye level and your desk height adjusted so your forearms can be level with the floor.
As a company dedicated to healthy workplaces and office worker safety and comfort, we’re proud to play a small part in carrying forward the field of ergonomics, and we send a big thanks to all the researchers, designers, psychologists, ergonomists, and others who have strived to improve our lives and society.