When discussing its meaning, we say that Ergonomics is the study and practice of influencing physical interactions with the immediate environment, in order to protect and improve comfort, health and system efficiency.
We also like the following definition of Ergonomics:
“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.”
by The International Ergonomics Association
Combining research in a range of disciplines, including anatomy and physiology, psychology, engineering and statistics, the aim of ergonomics is to allow us to assess and improve the way humans interact with products, tools and technology to achieve greater efficiency and increase health, comfort and satisfaction.
The science of ergonomics has many applications, including process engineering, design and manufacturing, operational health and behavioural psychology.
For most of us however, ergonomics intersects with our lives in the design of the products we use from day to day. In this article we will look at some of the ways in which ergonomics affects us on a daily basis.
We can probably all recall our parents or schoolteachers pleading with us as teenagers to sit up straight and not slouch. More recently, the office workers among us may have received a similar message, in the form of the dreaded health and safety training on how to use their adjustable chair.
Whilst no one likes to feel nagged, it’s true that sitting down is not as simple as it might seem. Poor posture, particularly in jobs where much of the day is spent sitting, can lead to serious musculoskeletal problems later in life.
The office chair is an important example of where good ergonomic design can make a difference. The best examples boast a range of features specifically aimed at reducing neck, back and joint damage.
Adjustable height, pitch and shape allow the chair to be configured to fit differently sized individuals more precisely. Structural support, particularly in the lumbar region, encourages good posture. Breathable materials increase comfort when sitting for long periods. Even the swivel mechanism and the castors have an ergonomic purpose – they are designed to prevent twisting or leaning, which can contribute to repetitive strain injuries.
The desk too is an important component in maintaining healthy posture. Ergonomic desk designs include adjustable height and angling to ensure they can be used without excessive leaning or reaching. The sit/stand desk, which allows quick switching between the two modes is becoming increasingly popular as people recognise the benefits of breaking up long periods of sitting by working on their feet occasionally.
On top of the desk, adjustable monitor stands and ergonomically designed keyboards, mice and other peripherals ensure that employees can work in the most comfortable, natural position possible.
For manual workers, good ergonomic design can not only protect long term health, but also avoid more immediate dangers. Properly fitted protective equipment, safety guards on machinery which protect without impeding work, well laid out workspaces which minimise unnecessary lifting and carrying or tools designed to be used comfortably and safely over long periods are all examples of how knowledge of ergonomics has informed the safe management of the workplace.
Ergonomic products at home
What is ergonomics when it comes to everyday objects? Around a third of our time is spent asleep, and a well designed bed and mattress combination is extremely important for good joint and muscle health. Ergonomically designed beds incorporate innovative materials such as memory foam, breathable fabrics and adjustable height to provide the perfect environment for a good night’s rest, encouraging good sleep posture and providing support in the right areas.
In the kitchen, the science of ergonomics contributes to the design of products from chef’s knives with moulded handles and carefully balanced blades, to the height and positioning of worktop surfaces. Electrical items such as kettles and blenders are deliberately designed to be usable with one hand, while even simple tools such as can openers and scissors have been built with ergonomic principles in mind.
Even our clothing and accessories benefit from the application of good ergonomic design. Sports shoes are carefully designed to support and cushion the foot when engaged in strenuous activity to avoid injury, shoulder bags are shaped to evenly distribute the weight of their contents and sportswear increasingly incorporates active cooling technology and structural support.
On the move
Nowadays, our mobile phones are arguably the product we interact with the most frequently, and manufacturers compete to produce the slimmest, lightest variants packed with the most features.
However, there’s also a lot of ergonomic science behind the design of modern smartphones. The placement of the volume or power buttons is usually designed to allow one handed usage, while screen and bezel sizes are carefully measured to ensure adequate reach while maximising the dimensions of the display.
Innovative new features such as rear fingerprint sensors, which sit exactly where your finger would be when holding the phone naturally, make devices even easier to use. Even non-physical developments such as the increased use of voice control have their roots in ergonomics, removing the need to make small repetitive movements, which can be damaging over time.
After our home and our workplace, the car is probably the place we spend the most time, particularly those of us who commute regularly. Ergonomic design is evident in all aspects of car design, aimed at keeping us safe, comfortable and alert.
These design principles govern everything from adjustable seating to ensure the correct driving position, to the placement of dials and displays to minimise the time our gaze is diverted from the road ahead. The arrangement of levers and buttons places the most used controls within closest reach to avoid having to search for a particular item while on the move.
Good versus bad ergonomic design
Examples of good ergonomic design are all around us, and the benefits to our short and long term health are clear. It is however, up to the individual to ensure that they pay attention to ergonomic principles in everyday life – choosing an ergonomic mattress over a cheaper sprung one, for example, or working at a well designed desk rather than hunching over a laptop on the sofa.
With the rapid growth of technology seemingly aimed at making our lives ever more sedentary, from self driving cars, to virtual reality headsets, to the automation of home appliances, paying attention to the ergonomics of our surroundings is ever more important to ensure a happy and healthy future.