Ergonomics (or human factors) is the application of scientific information concerning humans to the design of objects, systems and environment for human use (definition adopted by the International Ergonomics Association in 2007). Ergonomics is commonly thought of as how companies design tasks and work areas to maximize the efficiency and quality of their employees’ work. However, ergonomics comes into everything which involves people. Work systems, sports and leisure, health and safety should all embody ergonomics principles if well designed.
It is the applied science of equipment design intended to maximize productivity by reducing operator fatigue and discomfort. The field is also called biotechnology, human engineering, and human factors engineering.
Ergonomic research is primarily performed by ergonomists who study human capabilities in relationship to their work demands. Information derived from ergonomists contributes to the design and evaluation of tasks, jobs, products, environments and systems in order to make them compatible with the needs, abilities and limitations of people (IEA, 2000).
The IEA divides ergonomics broadly into three domains:
- Cognitive ergonomics, also known as engineering psychology, concerns mental processes such as perception, attention, cognition, motor control, and memory storage and retrieval as they affect interactions among humans and other elements of a system. Relevant topics include mental workload, vigilance, decision making, skilled performance, human error, human-computer interaction, and training.
- Organizational ergonomics, or macroergonomics, is concerned with the optimization of sociotechnical systems, including their organizational structures, policies, and processes. Relevant topics include shift work, scheduling, job satisfaction, motivational theory, supervision, safety culture, teamwork, telework and ethics.
The foundations of the science of ergonomics appear to have been laid within the context of the culture of Ancient Greece. A good deal of evidence indicates that Hellenic civilization in the 5th century BC used ergonomic principles in the design of their tools, jobs, and workplaces. One outstanding example of this can be found in the description Hippocrates gave of how a surgeon's workplace should be designed (See Marmaras, Poulakakis, and Papakostopoulos 1999).
The term ergonomics is derived from the Greek words ergon [work] and nomos [natural laws] and first entered the modern lexicon when Wojciech Jastrzębowski used the word in his 1857 article Rys ergonomji czyli nauki o pracy, opartej na prawdach poczerpniętych z Nauki Przyrody.
Later in the 19th century, Frederick Winslow Taylor pioneered the "Scientific Management" method, which proposed a way to find the optimum method for carrying out a given task. Taylor found that he could, for example, triple the amount of coal that workers were shovelling by incrementally reducing the size and weight of coal shovels until the fastest shovelling rate was reached. Frank and Lillian Gilbreth expanded Taylor's methods in the early 1900s to develop "Time and Motion Studies". They aimed to improve efficiency by eliminating unnecessary steps and actions. By applying this approach, the Gilbreths reduced the number of motions in bricklaying from 18 to 4.5, allowing bricklayers to increase their productivity from 120 to 350 bricks per hour.
World War II marked the development of new and complex machines and weaponry, and these made new demands on operators' cognition. The decision-making, attention, situational awareness and hand-eye coordination of the machine's operator became key in the success or failure of a task. It was observed that fully functional aircraft, flown by the best-trained pilots, still crashed. In 1943, Alphonse Chapanis, a lieutenant in the U.S. Army, showed that this so-called "pilot error" could be greatly reduced when more logical and differentiable controls replaced confusing designs in airplane cockpits.
In the decades since the war, ergonomics has continued to flourish and diversify. The Space Age created new human factors issues such as weightlessness and extreme g-forces. How far could environments in space be tolerated, and what effects would they have on the mind and body? The dawn of the Information Age has resulted in the new ergonomics field of human-computer interaction (HCI). Likewise, the growing demand for and competition among consumer goods and electronics has resulted in more companies including human factors in product design.
Ergonomics draws on many disciplines in its study of humans and their environments, including anthropometry, biomechanics, mechanical engineering, industrial engineering, industrial design, kinesiology, physiology and psychology.
Typically, an ergonomist will have a BA or BS in Psychology, Industrial/Mechanical Engineering or Health Sciences, and usually a MA, MS or PhD in a related discipline. Many universities offer Master of Science degrees in Ergonomics, while some offer Master of Ergonomics or Master of Human Factors degrees.
More recently, physiotherapists and occupational therapists have been moving into the field of ergonomics and the field has been heralded as one of the top ten emerging practice areas to watch for in the new millennium.
The more than twenty technical subgroups within the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES) indicate the range of applications for ergonomics. Human factors engineering continues to be successfully applied in the fields of aerospace, aging, health care, IT, product design, transportation, training, nuclear and virtual environments, among others. Kim Vicente, a University of Toronto Professor of Ergonomics, argues that the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl is attributable to plant designers not paying enough attention to human factors. "The operators were trained but the complexity of the reactor and the control panels nevertheless outstripped their ability to grasp what they were seeing [during the prelude to the disaster]."
Physical ergonomics is important in the medical field, particularly to those diagnosed with physiological ailments or disorders such as arthritis (both chronic and temporary) or carpal tunnel syndrome. Pressure that is insignificant or imperceptible to those unaffected by these disorders may be very painful, or render a device unusable, for those who are. Many ergonomically designed products are also used or recommended to treat or prevent such disorders, and to treat pressure-related chronic pain.
Human factors issues arise in simple systems and consumer products as well. Some examples include cellular telephones and other handheld devices that continue to shrink yet grow more complex (a phenomenon referred to as "creeping featurism"), millions of VCRs blinking "12:00" across the world because very few people can figure out how to program them, or alarm clocks that allow sleepy users to inadvertently turn off the alarm when they mean to hit 'snooze'. A user-centered design (UCD), also known as a systems approach or the usability engineering lifecycle aims to improve the user-system
Engineering psychology is an interdisciplinary part of Ergonomics and studies the relationships of people to machines, with the intent of improving such relationships. This may involve redesigning equipment, changing the way people use machines, or changing the location in which the work takes place. Often, the work of an engineering psychologist is described as making the relationship more "user-friendly."
Engineering Psychology is an applied field of psychology concerned with psychological factors in the design and use of equipment. Human factors is broader than engineering psychology, which is focused specifically on designing systems that accommodate the information-processing capabilities of the brain (see Wickens and Hollands 2000).
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- Jan Dul and Bernard Weerdmeester, Ergonomics for Beginners - - A classic introduction on ergonomics - Original title: Vademecum Ergonomie (Dutch) -published and updated since 1960's
- Stephen Pheasant, Bodyspace - - A classic exploration of ergonomics
- Kim Vicente, The Human Factor Full of examples and statistics illustrating the gap between existing technology and the human mind, with suggestions to narrow it
- Donald Norman, The Design of Everyday Things - - An entertaining user-centered critique of nearly every gadget out there (at the time it was published)
- Wilson & Corlett, Evaluation of Human Work A practical ergonomics methodology. Warning: very technical and not a suitable 'intro' to ergonomics
- Wickens and Hollands, Engineering Psychology and Human Performance - - Discusses memory, attention, decision making, stress and human error, among other topics
- Alvin R. Tilley & Henry Dreyfuss Associates (1993, 2002), The Measure of Man & Woman: Human Factors in Design A human factors design manual that has controversial elements.
Peer-Reviewed Publications (numbers between brackets are the ISI impact factor 2001-2003)
- Ergonomics (0.747)
- Applied Ergonomics (0.738)
- Human Factors (0.723)
- International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics (0.395)
- Human Factors and Ergonomics in Manufacturing (0.311)
- Travail Humain (0.260)
- Theoretical Issues in Ergonomics Science (-)
- International Journal of Occupational Safety and Ergonomics (-)
- Back injury
- Carpal tunnel syndrome
- Cognitive load
- Industrial Design
- Environmental design
- Human factors
- Human computer interaction
- Industrial noise
- Occupational therapy
- Participatory Ergonomics and Ergonomics Change Teams
- Repetitive strain injury
- Systems engineering
- Typing ergonomics