This article was published on 5 October, 2018
Some of you may have read recent articles questioning whether ergonomics was soundly based, and whether some of its interventions were effective. While ergonomics is a broad field it is often, particularly in press articles, erroneously categorised narrowly as the world of office desktops and “ergonomic” labels on equipment which claim to “fix problems”.
Many people who have used, engaged or applied professional ergonomics advice will have firsthand experience of the critical role it plays in society and its wide range of benefits.
Others may have questions, and be seeking assurance that their trust or investment in ergonomics is well-founded.
Does ergonomics have a scientific basis?
As both a social science researcher (all those thesis memories), and as someone who now works as the relationship manager at an ergonomics firm, I wanted to look beyond the positive anecdotal evidence our clients present us about the value of ergonomics, and put on my academic hat for a day to investigate further.
Here is some of what I found:
Click on a heading below to find out more. “Fact or Fiction” includes reference to 3 large scale scientific studies:
“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 optimise human well-being and overall system performance.”
The name ergonomics is derived from the Ancient Greek words: Ergon – Work, and Nomos – natural law. It has been driven by our evolving desire to understand human attributes (e.g. size, strength), capabilities and weaknesses, and apply this knowledge to optimise the design of work products and processes.
While people have been interested in these topics since the beginning of time, contemporary ergonomics routinely draws on the related sciences of biomechanics, work physiology, human size (anthropometry), occupational psychology, environmental physics and principles of learning.
Next: Click on Timeline ⇒
Modern ergonomics – a brief timeline:
- 1857: Poland: The word “ergonomics” is first published by Polish Prof. Wojciech Jastrzebowski in his piece “An outline of ergonomics, or the science of work”.
- 1921: Japan, Gito Terouka founds the Kurashiki Institute of Science of Labour and publishes “Research of efficiency: ergonomics”.
- 1921: Russian researchers at the first conference on Scientific Organisation of Labour advocate an approach that coupled discovering maximum efficiency (in the vein of Taylorism) PLUS the minimisation of safety hazards and fostering of the sound health of workers.
- 1943: During World War 2 it is observed that fully functional aircraft flown by the best trained pilots still crash. Pilot error is reduced by focused redesign of the controls after psychological and engineering analysis – human capability (ergonomics!) being the driver.
- 1947: Hywel Murrell, a chemist graduate and later a psychologist professor, is appointed to lead the UK Royal Navy Motion Study Unit. He heads an inter-disciplinary team studying the motions involved in handling gunnery and ammunition, the layout of equipment, and the handling of information.
- 1949: Murrell, invites a group of distinguished scientists to the Admiralty and they form the Human Research Society with the intent of holding scientific meetings for the discussion of research.
- 1949: Murrell officially proposes the name Ergonomics as the term to define the evolving multidisciplinary field. This is accepted by vote in 1950. The Ergonomic Research Society is formed and kicks off the first ergonomics professional association.1
- In 1951 Murrell joins Tube investments – a holding company for specialised engineering companies and launches the first ergonomics department for British industry.
- 1953: The European Productivity Agency, EPA, starts activities to implement human factors [another word for ergonomics] in productivity through the ‘fitting the task to the worker’ project.
- 1957: The United States Human Factors Society (a term still used in America for ergonomics) is formed. “Human Factors Engineering” is emphasised by the US military with a focus on the role of the individual within complex systems. In Britain the firm Taylor & Francis begins publishing the Journal of Ergonomics.
Next: Click on Fact or Fiction ⇒
1 http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a196281.pdf – International Ergonomics Association activities and constituent societies, prepared for U.S. Army Human Engineering Laboratory.
Fact or fiction? 5 myths exposed:
|1.||Fiction: ergonomics lacks a scientific basis.
Fact: ergonomics has a history originating in military scientific research.
Ergonomics was first written about in 1857 and came to the fore during World War II.
One of the most publicised and well-known early examples of an ergonomics approach to solving technical problems came in 1943 when the US air force observed that fully functional aircraft flown by the best trained pilots still frequently crashed. Why? A multidisciplinary ergonomics analysis by a combined team of aeronautical engineers and psychologists discovered that the cockpit controls were not easy for the pilots to see and use. The designers then reduced pilot error through a human capability-focused redesign of those controls.
Meanwhile, across the seas in Britain, Hywel Murrell (a trained chemist, and known by some as the father of the ergonomics profession) began work for the Royal Navy gunnery research department – matching tools and layouts to human capability. His work was recognised when was appointed head of the Naval Motion unit. In 1949, Murrell invited a small group of like minded people to a meeting at the Admiralty, and from this meeting the Ergonomics Research Society was formed.
In 1951 Murrell launched the first government ergonomics department for British industry and in 1952 was instrumental in the birth and shaping of the British Ergonomics Society.
|2.||Fiction: ergonomics is the science of belief.
Fact: scientifically valid studies have routinely shown the efficacy of ergonomics.
Ergonomics looks at work in context. As such, research is mostly done in the field (workplace) rather than in the laboratory. While this does make extraneous variables harder to control – it also gives a more accurate real world understanding of outcomes.
My investigation revealed extensive real-world studies (including peer reviewed) across a multiple industries which have shown ergonomics to be effective.
Three examples with large sample sizes:
- A review of a three year Participatory Ergonomics program for 88,000 US postal workers which found a 19% reduction in strains, better safety scores, better morale and improved mail flow.1
- A six year study across 17 geographically diverse US aluminium manufacturing businesses with 24,041 people, which concluded: “evidence of a substantial, positive impact of systematic ergonomic HC [Hazard Control] implementation on worker MSD [Musculoskeletal Disorders = sprains and strains] and injury risk… systematic ergonomic HC implementation was associated with reduced risk for all injuries as well as MSD only.”2
- A systematic review of the effects of human factors and ergonomics on “Health Care Patient Safety Practices”. This reviewed 28 studies (20 were controlled, 2 were randomized controlled trials and 8 were before/after studies without controls but met the quality assessment criteria) and 3,227 participants. The author’s concluded: “The results showed that the interventions positively affected the outcomes of health care workers” and that “the human factors and ergonomic interventions fairly consistently led to improvements in both health care workers’ outcomes and patient safety”.3
There are a range of examples of successfully implemented ergonomic solutions divided by industry at the United States Department of Labour ergonomics success stories page.
Having looked at the history and research base for ergonomics I am pleased to be reassured that the positive stories we hear from our clients were backed up by a strong body of scientific enquiry. Like any discipline, we do not have every answer – yet. It was good to uncover some new studies and schools of thought that will continue to help improve the field and the comfort, health and safety of people at work and home.
|3.||Fiction: “ergonomic” furniture is always better.
Fact: be cautious: ergonomic doesn’t always mean ergonomic.
Unlike other professions, “ergonomics” is not a protected term – this means anyone can use it – and they have! This includes people who claim to be ‘ergonomists’ but may have little or no training or experience in the field, and claims made by salespeople and marketers.
The professional title of “ergonomist” has unfortunately been diluted by some to include anyone who chooses to adjust a screen or chair – without reference to the multiple degrees or rigorous multidisciplinary training that qualified ergonomists obtain and draw upon.
Additionally, some people incorrectly reduce “ergonomics” to simply mean office furniture. I went to some popular office equipment websites and downloaded a range of images of furniture marketed as “ergonomic”. I then showed them to my colleagues – two of whom are Certified Professional Ergonomists (only 82 people in Australia presently have this rank). They were horrified but sadly unsurprised that such non-ergonomic design was being advertised in stores as being good for you.
I too was shocked that this happens. Don’t believe everything you read – ensure any advice you receive is from a credible source.
|4.||Fiction: Anyone in the health science fields can consider themselves as an ergonomist and effectively apply the principles.
Fact: ergonomics is complex and requires experience and specific training.
When you give relationship advice or moral support to your friend – do you consider yourself a psychologist? No (well maybe for a short while). You may be able to impart some helpful wisdom, however if your friend worked with a trained psychologist both the process and long-term outcomes would follow an evidence base and result in quite different results.
The same is true for ergonomics. To look at an isolated part – such as treating all workers with sore backs the same – is contrary to the fundamentals of an ergonomic approach – which looks at the whole situation, from the tasks you do, the context you do them in, and personal attributes. Only then are appropriate “interventions” (solutions/improvements) proposed.
The lens that Certified Professional Ergonomists look through goes well beyond common sense and draws on understandings of a wide number of scientific disciplines. These include, but are in no way restricted to – how humans think, how different bodies work and are known to react to stressors such as vibration and postures, the effect of light and sound, the resistance and conductivity of the kinds of materials that are engaged with and the holistic structure of tasks such as whether workers are rotated and when and what kind of breaks are included.
When engaging an ergonomist, ensure that they have formal qualifications, relevant training, and access to the latest tools and equipment available for analysing force, light or populations, for example. Ask them about the awareness they have of related scientific studies and legal standards, and also the kind of solutions they have suggested previously in similar workplace situations, and why?
|5.||Fiction: ergonomics is just about office furniture.
Fact: ergonomics may not be the most famous field, but it is everywhere.
While ergonomics is often associated with office design and has long been applied to problems in manufacturing, healthcare and transport – all of the big brands like HP, Apple and Ford embrace ergonomics. Do you remember cumbersome mobiles before the iPhone? What about cars with uncomfortable bench seats, huge blindspots, hard to open doors and shoulder straining three-on-the-tree gear sticks?
These are just some of the fields where ergonomists have made our lives easier through a human- centred approach to the design of work, workplaces, tools, products and layout – work they have been doing since that US airforce pilot cockpit redesign in WW2.
Today there are more than 60 ISO ergonomics standards on various aspects of product and systems design, all with the goal of improving performance, comfort, and safety as well as preventing errors and injuries.
Next: Click on Questions to ask ⇒
1 Orr GB, Elyea LL. The Participatory Ergonomics at the US Postal Service. Human Factors & Ergonomics Society of Australia 42nd Annual Conference 2006. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/268381180_The_Participatory_Ergonomics_at_the_US_Postal_Service
2Cantley LF, Taiwo OA, Galusha D, et al. Effect of systematic ergonomic hazard identification and control implementation on musculoskeletal disorder and injury risk. Scandinavian journal of work, environment & health. 2014;40(1):57-65. doi:10.5271/sjweh.3394. (peer reviewed)
3Mao X, Jia P, Zhang L, Zhao P, Chen Y, Zhang M. An Evaluation of the Effects of Human Factors and Ergonomics on Health Care and Patient Safety Practices: A Systematic Review. 2015 PLoS ONE 10(6): e0129948. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0129948 (peer reviewed)
Questions to ask:
To wrap up I asked my colleagues, and some of our clients:
“What should people look for when hiring ergonomics consultants?”
“How does Dohrmann Consulting approach each one?”
There were 5 recurring themes:
- Experience: How long has the ergonomist been practicing? What kinds of work have they done? Carefully appraise whether their experience fits your needs (note this may not mean they have worked in your industry – but that they have worked on similar challenges. Cross-industry experience can be applicable and invaluable to your industry as your consultant will have been exposed to a wider variety of problems and potential solutions).
Dohrmann Consulting was established in 1977. All of our consultants have at least 10+ years of experience, they also maintain a passion for learning new discoveries in their fields.
- Training: What formal and informal training have they done – both in ergonomics and related fields? Who have they been mentored by?
We have two active Certified Professional Ergonomists (only 82 people in Australia hold this rank), who are also qualified professional engineers. We also have experts in biomedical engineering, mechanical engineering and safety – all with many years on the ground experience in ergonomics-specific consulting, health and legal fields.
- Approach: Ergonomists have usually first completed other degrees – consider what complementary skills will suit you more. For instance, physiotherapists with additional ergonomics qualifications will have a background in physical manipulation, whereas a mechanical engineer who has also obtained an additional ergonomics qualification will have a strong understanding of machinery, equipment, and design.
Dohrmann Consulting approach problems from a scientific, practical perspective, and overlay broad industry experience and lessons learned from giving expert evidence in court.
We have two complementary divisions.
1. Legal expert opinion, where we give expert opinion in personal injury matters: these opinions have to stand up to rigorous cross examination in court.
2. Ergonomics consulting, where we assist a wide variety of organisations to create safer workplaces and/or introduce more human centred designs. Recent examples of this work include tram and train cabin design, aircraft interior design, warehouse design, office design, workplace assessments and safety training.
- Breadth of accessible knowledge base: Does their team discuss and peer-review reports? Can they leverage the experience of peers?
Our team has a weekly meeting where issues and solutions are discussed. We peer review all reports. We have an extensive technical and legal library.
- Easy to work with: Can they easily discuss your situation, provide examples of similar problems which they have encountered and solved, and provide you with a sensible suggested approach? Do they know how to put people at ease and ask questions?
Listening and understanding are crucial to effective ergonomic solutions. Qualified ergonomists will always ask lots of targeted questions of frontline workers to understand the whole work context – this often unearths unexpected issues, as well as potential solutions.
If you have any questions, or would like to benefit from the expertise of our team, then please give us a call on 03 9376 1844 or visit the website at www.ergonomics.com.au. We work across Australia.