Ergonomics 101

Ergonomics is derived from two Greek words: ergon, meaning work and nomoi meaning natural laws. It is the study of human capabilities in relationship to work demands. Ergonomics is defined as an applied science concerned with designing and arranging things people use, so that the people and things interact most efficiently and safely. In laymen's terms, this means providing or designing a good fit between people, objects and the things they do--whether it is a hand tool or a chair. When a good fit is achieved, stress on the mind and body are reduced, and people are more comfortable, allowing them to perform functions more efficiently and quickly with fewer mistakes.

"Ergonomics in its greatest sense is making things user-friendly to increase productivity," said Cindy Roth, CEO, Ergonomic Technologies Corp., Syosset, N.Y., a national and international ergonomic consulting firm.


History Lesson

The study of ergonomics began almost 50 years ago during World War II when scientists designed new and improved tools but did not take into account the people who would be using them. Throughout the years, an awareness evolved to design instruments, while taking into account human and environmental factors, and research began in a variety of areas such as:

  • Muscle force required to perform manual tasks

  • Compressive low back disk force when lifting

  • Cardiovascular response when performing heavy labor

  • Perceived maximum load that can be carried, pushed or pulled

"Ergonomics is the concept of making things to fit people, rather than asking people to fit products," said Walter Charnizon, executive vice president, Continental Expositions, New York, N.Y., which produces the National Ergonomics Conference and Expo,

Studies also began that involved human behavior, including the decision-making process, organization and perceptions related to the design of tools and instruments. It was the combination of

Ergonomics is the concept of making things to fit people, rather than asking people to fit products.
tool design and the need to understand human cognizance that led to more research and development in the field of ergonomics.

"We've seen a broadening of the marketplace. Four years ago the industry was focused on how to reduce carpal tunnel syndrome and reduce workers' compensation costs," Charnizon said. "Ergonomics is growing because the science is now mature enough in the American market to be recognized as an essential business element because it can increase profitability of any company--small, medium or large--and they now have a metric to measure the return on the investment," Roth said.

These concepts of fitting tools to humans and the study of the human mind has led to a growing trend of examining ergonomics in the modern day workplace. To answer this need for compatibility between work environments and the human need for comfort and safety, many manufacturers have created specially designed products such as keyboards, chairs, footstools and other equipment to create an ergonomic market that is maturing, growing and becoming a necessary component of everyday life.

OSHA published a final ergonomics standard during the last days of Bill Clinton's presidency, but Congress and President George W. Bush repealed the standard in March 2001. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups had sued to block the standard and celebrated its demise. Had it gone into effect, employees experiencing a musculoskeletal disorder would have been eligible for 90 percent of their earnings if they were off work for 90 calendar days. The standard applied to employers with 11 or more workers, including part-time employees.

Ergonomics bogged down OSHA for more than a year. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao has promised to take a new approach to address ergonomic injuries at work, but Chao and OSHA Administrator John L. Henshaw had not spelled out their strategy by press time. On the state level, California and Washington have their own ergonomics regulations.

Some employers are suing to stop Washington's rule, which will require employers to alter hazardous jobs that expose workers to specific physical risk factors--awkward postures, force, repetition, repeated impacts, heavy or frequent lift and hand-arm vibration. OSHA, however, has levied some large fines against

The science is now mature enough in the American market to be recognized as an essential business element.
various companies for ergonomic problems, including nursing home chains. Several nursing associations and health care-related organizations are among the strongest proponents of ergonomics regulations.

"I think a lot of union members feel the ergonomic industry has been hurt by lack of a federal standard," Roth said.

While ergonomics spans a variety of lifestyle issues, no place has seen its prevalence and growth more than the workplace. Various work-related injuries and bodily stress can be prevented if employees and employers are well educated about ergonomics, helpful exercises and the many products available today.

Medical conditions such as low back pain and carpal tunnel syndrome are only two of the major medical problems associated with the use of non-ergonomic products or poor posture.

Products for Employees

Designing jobs or situations that fit people means taking into account the differences in size, strength and ability to handle information for a variety of users. The workplace, tasks and tools are designed around these differences, improving efficiency, quality of work and job satisfaction.

"Statistics from insurance companies and brokerage firms that represent workers' compensation issues indicate that 21 percent of a person's salary is spent on items like workers compensation, disability compensation and indirect costs as well as quality issues and product liability," Roth said.

Oftentimes, product designers are far removed from the end-user, making it important to adopt an ergonomic, user-centered approach to design, including studying people using equipment, talking to them and asking them to test objects.

3M, St. Paul, Minn., manufactures various products to ease the strain of computer work, such as palm pads that are designed to comfortably support the wrist without interfering with natural

The science is now mature enough in the American market to be recognized as an essential business element.
keyboard positioning. Therapeutic foam gently cradles the wrists and palms while insulating them from battery heat. Other new products on the horizon include specialty mouse controllers and mouse surfaces with gel wrist rests aimed at reducing hand tension while increasing work functionality.

Many office workers spend much of their day in a chair that is not adjustable to their specific body measurements and work needs. A quality adjustable chair accommodates variations in people's height and weight as well as their work environment. A small and simple alternative is to vary daily activities and occasionally get up and move around to stretch out muscles.

"Ergonomic products help increase productivity without hurting the people performing the task. This is applicable in any industry whether it is automotive manufacturing with heavy equipment or workplace environments that use computers or other handheld products," Roth said.

High vibration levels and repeated impact of power tools, material handling and equipment also can injure hands. Mitts, gloves and hand protection inserts are designed for both impact and vibration reduction without compromising fit or grip strength. Wrist supports and ergonomic braces are useful because they restrict wrist motion.

Wrist and Elbow

Carpal tunnel syndrome has become a common diagnosis as the computer age and use of handheld electronics have grown. There are several adjustments people are able to make to their workstation to avoid such injuries and strains.

At work, users should check the height of the surface on which the keyboard rests. There should be adequate space for knees and legs underneath the work surface or the keyboard tray. Chairs and keyboards should be adjusted so that wrists and forearms are in a neutral position. Adjustable keyboards featuring tray tilt adjustments can aid in getting a good fit with the employee. A keyboard tray also can free up desk space while keeping arms parallel to the floor. This allows for customization of the work area if the keyboard tray can adjust in and out, move up or down, tilt or swivel.

Workers should avoid resting wrists, forearms and elbows on hard surfaces or sharp edges, ensuring that wrists and hands are in a straight line. Padded wrist rests and ergonomically correct keyboard and mouse trays are recommended for maintaining work performance and healthy hands.

While wrist and elbow injuries are fairly common in today's working society, posture is issue that needs more focus and attention.


In recent years, ergonomists have attempted to define postures, which minimize unnecessary static work and reduce the forces acting on the body. Some of the recommended ergonomic principles, according to, are:

  • All work activities should permit the worker to adopt several different, but equally healthy and safe postures

  • Where muscular force has to be exerted, it should be done by the largest appropriate muscle groups available

  • Work activities should be performed with the joints about the mid-point of their range of movement. This applies particularly to the head, trunk and upper limbs.

Posture is one of the most important ergonomic considerations for a healthy back. Experts recommend that people select several proper sitting, standing and partially reclined postures and remember to alternate between them. Some recommendations for good and healthy posture are:

  • Maintain a neutral back posture

  • Head and neck should be in an upright, relaxed, comfortable position--even when on the phone

  • Avoid holding tensed muscles in a fixed position for long periods of time

  • Avoid crossing your legs, dangling your feet or working on your tiptoes

Questions that employees should ask about their seating and support include: "Do the seat and backrest of the chair support a comfortable posture while permitting occasional variation in a seated position? Is the seat height-adjustable so that the entire sole of the foot rests on the floor or footrest, with the back of the knee slightly higher than the seat of the chair?

Other suggestions for maintaining good posture while working include the use of footrests to take pressure off the back and adjustable backrests to provide lumbar support and keep the lower back in a natural curve.

Neck Pain

Bad posture causes back pain, which also can lead to neck pain. Certain modifications to workstations can aid in reducing back and neck pain. Monitor adjustments, document holders and telephone headsets are a few tools that can help eliminate pain.

Computer monitors should be placed directly in front of the user at least 20 inches away. The top of the screen should be at or below eye level. These adjustments can be made by placing the monitor on a stand or by utilizing an adjustable monitor arm.

Other recommendations include using a telephone headset to eliminate awkward reaching while performing other tasks.

The position of a computer monitor can help reduce neck pain, but it also plays a role in preventing eyestrain.


According to statistics, screen glare is the leading cause of eyestrain in the office. Employees should position their monitors to avoid distracting glare. If screen glare continues, anti-glare filters further reduce strain on the eyes.

Lighting also affects screen glare but can be controlled by employees. Monitor and lighting adjustments can be made to ensure that employees do not have to strain to see their computer. Wearing dark clothing can reduce the reflections of the computer screen, and users can adjust the contrast and brightness on the monitor for a comfortable level.

Products for Employers

Promoting corporate wellness can help reduce injuries while increasing work output. Employers can help their employees by educating and training them in proper working techniques, resulting in overall job satisfaction and job performance.

"It is important to recognize that ergonomics is not about compliance; it just makes good sense," Roth said. "If your employees are more comfortable, then they are going to be more productive."

Supervisors should prompt and encourage employees to stretch tight muscles, ease visual stress and boost energy. The Ergonomic Management System from AliMed Inc., Dedham, Mass., helps employees avoid

If your employees are more comfortable, then they are going to be more productive.
computer-related repetitive strain injuries. It is a four-module ergonomics software package that assesses work habits and trains employees on safety at the computer workstation. Modules can be purchased separately or as a package.

The Surveyor™ brings user-friendly survey capabilities to the desktop. Employees can gather and distribute general ergonomic information about employee computer use. The ErgoSure™ module is a posture assessment tool designed specifically for the ergonomic health and safety consultant, allowing evaluation of posture at the workstation. Follow-up assessments can be conducted to track progress. Focusing on pacing and when to take short breaks, the ErgoSentry™ reviews workstation set-up, posture, stretching and exercises. The ErgoTrainer™ is designed to remind users to take short breaks at predetermined intervals, with each break lasting less than two minutes. These programs or modules are available on CD-ROM software and are compatible with Windows® 95, 98, 2000 and NT 3.51 or higher.

There are several educational and training programs available to employers to teach safety principles designed to prevent injury. Employers can implement exercises, reminders and awards. Fun products such as hand and finger exercises will help promote well-being among employees.

3M also offers a comprehensive training program that offers ergonomic information for the office. Ergonomic experts provide objective, informative viewpoints. The program consists of two 15-minute programs on one VHS cassette and a 3M Office Ergonomics CD program that guides viewers through an evaluation of its work site.

"Loss work time is a major problem when dealing with workers' compensation and disability issues," Roth said. "Even if a temporary replacement can be found, there is still a learning curve and time is lost to train the temporary employee."

Through education and proper training, employers can help prevent work-related injuries while increasing productivity in a healthy, ergonomic work environment.

The Future

What does the future hold for employers, employees and the modern day workplace? There could be a significant increase in workers' compensation claims if employers do not begin assessing their current work environment to make necessary ergonomic changes.

In a time when productivity must be increased to keep our economy on an even keel, it will become vital to maintain employee well-being and overall job satisfaction. By learning more about ergonomics and its effect on everyday working environments, employers will be able to satisfy employees, while at the same time improving productivity and reducing overall health costs.

Several companies are expanding into the ergonomic market by designing products that not only pertain to improving physical quality of life, but mental as well. Roth indicates that ergonomics can be applied to software programs that are user-friendly or computer screens that use softer colors to ease eye strain. "If you're not comfortable, you're not going to be productive and you can't concentrate. It's about quality of life," she said.

For employers to hold steadfast to a healthy work environment, it is vital to stay abreast of current ergonomic standards--if and when those standards arise. Through education and training, employers and employees will find the workplace safer, healthier and more productive.

*3M and AliMed Inc. provided information and tips related to physical recommendations to improve working conditions.

*Jerry Laws, editor, Occupational, Health & Safety, contributed to this article.

How Much Does It Cost?

According to the National Academy of Social Insurance:

  • $40.6 billion paid out under workers' compensation in 1997

  • $25.1 billion for income benefits

  • $15.5 billion for medical and hospitalization

  • Private carriers paid $20.6 billion of total workers' compensation benefits in 1997

  • In 1998, approximately 120.9 million workers were covered by workers' compensation

  • In 1997 117.7 million were covered 2.7 percent increase

  • 66 percent of the cases 372,000 total illness cases in 1999 were ergo types

According to William Mercer and Marsh, Risk & Insurance, April 2001:

  • Direct costs of all employer time off and disability programs averaged 14.3 percent of payroll in 1999

  • Replacement of absent workers (additional indirect costs) can be as much as the direct costs

  • 1999 direct costs of unscheduled absences rose by 5 percent over 1998

  • Sick days, salary continuance, short term disability, workers' compensation cost 3.9 percent of payroll

This article originally appeared in the January 2002 issue of HME Business.

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