Ergonomics is the name for a science or practice of shaping a worker's job demands and conditions so that a worker remains safe, productive, comfortable, and less prone to work-related injuries. Often, the term is applied to assessing workers' risks for disorders related to stressful or repetitive tasks they perform on the job that can cause musculoskeletal disorders and injuries.
When a worker is qualified for a job, it is up to the employer to make sure that the conditions of the work environment fit the worker rather than making the worker fit the environment. For example, if employers change the cubicles that their workers use every day, the company should look at ergonomic solutions to make the chairs, desks, lighting, and computer equipment suitable to employees' physical needs.
An example of a common ergonomics issue from this type of office situation is carpal tunnel syndrome, which occurs when the median nerve in the wrist is compressed from repetitive use. Swelling pinches the nerve, and people who perform certain tasks such as sewing, working on an assembly line, using tools that vibrate, or typing on computer keyboards all day are most susceptible to carpal tunnel syndrome. It results in numbness and pain on the thumb side of the worker's hand.
Not everyone has a desk job, but more and more workers use computers. Much of the assessment and work done in ergonomics addresses desks and computer-related workstations. Many workers have multiple ergonomics issues. For example, healthcare workers spend time at computers looking up or entering data, but also have to perform duties such as drawing blood, conducting examinations with ultrasonography or radiology equipment, or transferring and moving patients. These work duties require different ergonomic assessments to prevent injuries related to stress on workers' joints, back, and other parts of their musculoskeletal systems.
People who work in trade jobs or manufacturing often have to stand for extended periods, twist, and maybe bend and climb. Warehouse workers have to lift heavy objects. Many occupations require repetitive strain on wrists and other joints. Some employers voluntarily assess their workers' ergonomics to prevent costly injuries and improve worker productivity. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) works with states to support organized approaches to ergonomics.
Aside from poor conditions at work that are particular to a job type, such as a poorly positioned desk and monitor at a computer workstation, there are some risk factors common to many workers that increase risk of work-related injuries. When workers are not allowed enough breaks during the day or do not take breaks that are long enough, they increase strain on their bodies. Likewise, having too little time between work shifts to rest and recover increases risk of injury. Employees who work excessive amounts of overtime or who spend most of their time away from work handling domestic chores at home do not get the proper rest they need and are at higher risk for injuries and repetitive stress conditions.
Almost four million Americans experience workplace injuries every year. Some of the injuries are serious enough that the workers die or never recover enough to work again. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that more than 4,600 people died from workplace injuries in 2010. Highway workers were the most likely to be killed, and construction, agriculture, mining, and transportation occupations topped the list of fatal injuries. Carpal tunnel syndrome could affect up to 1.9 million people per year.
Many other workers are affected by injuries, such as falls, slips, or sprains, strains, and tears, that prevent them from working. Often, these injuries involve repetitive strain from the use of tools or computers. In 2011, more than 908,000 cases of workplace injuries and illnesses in private industry involved workers missing days on the job. In 2008, more than 279,000 cases of injury involved workers missing more than 30 days from work.
Employees have the right to a safe workplace and employers gain from keeping workers healthy and productive. By using ergonomics to study how people perform tasks, employers can help their employees avoid overusing muscles or causing injury by having bad posture. This is particularly important when tasks are repetitive or involve heavy lifting. Ergonomics can help employers design better work spaces, tools, lighting, and equipment for their workers to prevent discomfort and injuries. Ergonomics also can help educate employees on how to modify the way they perform tasks to avoid overusing muscles or using them the wrong way and causing injuries.
Routinely lifting heavy objects, working over one's head, having the neck flexed for long periods of time, or repetitively performing tasks that involve some force can contribute to musculoskeletal disorders. These cause absenteeism, lost productivity, and higher costs for health care, disability, and workers' compensation.
Some of the problems from poor worker conditions can have lasting effects on workers' health. Back injuries and back pain are top reasons for medical visits and can affect other aspects of people's lives and health. Workers in some occupations are at higher risk of arthritis, a disease that affects the joints. Osteoarthritis causes pain and gradual loss of function in load-bearing joints such as the knees and hips. People who must do heavy labor or carry heavy loads are at higher risk for osteoarthritis.
See also Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ; National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health ; Occupational Safety and Health Administration .
Henning, Robert, et al. “Workplace Health Protection and Promotion Through Participatory Ergonomics: An Integrated Approach.” Public Health Reports (2009): 26–35.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Ergonomics and Musculoskeletal Disorders.” http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/ergonomics/state_plan.html (accessed November 7, 2012).
Health and Safety Executive. “Understanding Ergonomics at Work.” http://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/indg90.pdf (accessed November 7, 2012).
Occupational Safety and Health Administration. “State Occupational Safety and Health Programs and Ergonomics.” http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/ergonomics/ (accessed November 7, 2012).
Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, PO Box 1369, Santa Monica, CA, 90406-1369, (310) 394-1811, Fax: (310) 394-2410, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.hfes.org .
Teresa G. Odle