Ergonomics touches every aspect of our life (disclaimer: I am a Certified Professional Ergonomist). Let me qualify my claim: the next time you are in your car on your way to work, take note of how all the important functions of the car can be easily reached, read, and used – this is a prime example of ergonomics. The instrument set-up in a car is an example of a relatively optimal system that incorporates a high level of usability. If this level of attention was not taken in the design process, one could easily imagine scenarios that could lead to accidents/incidents. This sort of situation is frequently seen in the office setting, where the lack to proper ergonomics consideration could lead to a repetitive strain workplace injury. There are countless past incidents where ergonomics considerations would have prevented even the most disastrous of circumstances or even large disasters (an example of this is the 1989 Hillsborough stadium collapse is an example of a systematic ergonomic failure). Looking back at these incidents and events often allows us to determine how an ergonomics process could have been optimized to prevent these from occurring in the first place! Occupational injuries due to sub-optimal ergonomics can be very expensive for an organization, as illustrated via Heinrich’s iceberg model.
The iceberg model was originally developed in the 1930s and 1950s however it is still popular today. This model describes the direct and indirect costs of injuries. The iceberg model would make for a great blog post in itself, but briefly: it illustrates the need for injury prevention for organizations. The model points out that much of the cost of workplace injury is hidden from organizations just like most of the iceberg is ‘hidden’ below the water surface. Costs not refundable by insurance companies are termed the indirect or hidden costs and according to Heinrich, make up approximately 75% of the total cost of an average occupational accident. A study by Miller and Galbraith (1995) estimated that US injury costs amounted to $140 billion annually and includes costs such as medical care, emergency costs, lost wages, administrative costs, legal costs, workplace disruption and loss of quality of life. With the hidden costs of injury, an organization should reconsider why an ergonomics process has not yet been established from a purely cost savings perspective as the financial implications of workplace injuries play a significant impact on business competitiveness.
So, with all of this in mind, what exactly does the term ergonomics mean? This can be a rather confusing topic and it doesn’t help that a lot of what you’ve probably seen about ergonomics through advertising was far off the mark as ergonomics has been misrepresented commercially for years. The gold standard definition of ergonomics comes from the International Ergonomics Association (IEA) :
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.
Today, ergonomics is a staple method to determine if humans are exposed to any unnecessary risk factors as well as to design future products/systems with human capabilities in mind. With respect to system design, a significant cost savings has been documented when ergonomics have been incorporated into the front-end (early development phases) of designs.
From a risk management perspective, an ergonomist would typically be asked to determine if the amount of risk that employees are exposed to falls within a safe level. If there is sufficient risk, the ergonomist would identify what would be needed to implement a system/method to reduce the risk to within an acceptable level. Countermeasures may include engineering, administrative, behavioural, or personal protective equipment to eliminate or significantly reduce the risk. There are a large variety of ergonomic assessment tools that are available to assist this process and adds to its legitimacy (all ergonomic assessment tool have been verified through a vigorous peer-reviewed journal process). Some of the most popular ergonomic assessment tools include the Snook and Cirello Liberty Mutual Tables, the NIOSH lifting equation, and the Rapid Upper Limb Assessment (RULA) tool. Each of these tools are optimally used under specific scenarios; there usually isn’t one tool that can be used in every single risk assessment. This is where expertise comes in.
Miller, T. & Galbraith, M. (1995). Estimating the costs of occupational injury in the United States Accident Analysis and Prevention, 27 (6), 741–747.
Heinrich, H. (1959). Industrial Accident Prevention. A Scientific Approach, 4th ed. McGraw-Hill, New York.