What is ergonomics? Definition and meaning

Most people think that ergonomics is all about seating or car control designs. It is but is also considerably more than just that. It is the process of arranging and designing workplaces, systems, and products. The aim is to make them fit the humans who use them.

Ergonomics or ‘human factors’ includes the design of anything that involves humans. The focus may be safety, leisure, or sports. The focus may also be the workplace. In fact, we can use the two terms interchangeably.

However, there is a slight difference between the two terms. Ergonomics is more to do with the physical aspects of the environment, such as control panels and workstations.

Human factors, on the other hand, focuses more on the wider system in which people work.

ErgonomicsErgonomics helps us harmonize things that interact with humans regarding our needs, abilities, and limitations. (Image inspired from IEA illustration)

According to the IEA (International Ergonomics Association):

“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.”

Ergonomics: A branch of science

It is a branch of science that aims to learn all about our abilities and limitations. We then apply what we learned to improve how we interact with systems, environments, and products.

It brings together knowledge from other subjects such as physiology, anatomy, and psychology. It also draws from statistics and engineering.

Ergonomics aims to ensure that designs complement our strengths and abilities. It also aims to minimize the effects of our limitations.

Ergonomics The WorkplaceAccording to ergo-plus.com: “Ergonomics is the science of designing the workplace, keeping in mind the capabilities and limitations of the worker. Poor worksite design leads to fatigued, frustrated and hurting workers. This rarely leads to the most productive worker. More likely, it leads to a painful and costly injury, lower productivity and poor product quality.” (Image: artengine.ca/darsha)


We should not expect humans to adapt to a design that forces them to work in stressful or uncomfortable ways. In fact, we should aim to design workplaces, systems, or products to suit the people who have to use them.

Minimizing injury

Ergonomists aim to minimize injury or harm. They also strive to improve productivity and comfort in the workplace and other environments.

Technologies currently change rapidly, and new products appear on the market every week. We must design work tools for the requirements of our bodies. We should also do the same when designing devices and furniture we use at home.

Ergonomists say we need to understand and design for the variability present in human populations, spanning such attributes as strength, cognitive ability, prior experience, age, size, cultural expectations, and goals.

A qualified ergonomist is the only recognized professional that has competency in optimizing performance and comfort. They also specialize in optimizing safety.

Ergonomics for ChildrenDo you teach, supervise, protect, and design products and systems for children? If you do, you are considering ergonomic factors every day. (Image: humanics-es.com. Publishers: Taylor & Francis)

Ergonomics covers all lifestyles, workplaces, leisure environments, and age groups; even children

Domains of specialization

Below are some domains of specialization that ergonomists can specialize in:

Physical Ergonomics

This is concerned with anthropometric (the study of the measurements and proportions of the human body), and anatomical features as they relate to human activity. It also includes physiological and biomechanical features.

Relevant topics include repetitive movements, workplace layout, work-related musculoskeletal disorders, and materials handling. Professionals also focus on working postures, safety, and health.

Cognitive Ergonomics

This is all about mental processes, including reasoning, motor response, memory, and perception. The ergonomist tries to understand how they affect interactions among people and other elements in a system.

Relevant topics include human-computer interaction, mental workload, decision-making, human reliability, and work stress. Training is also an important topic.

Organizational Ergonomics

This branch deals with the optimization of systems. We also call it Systems Ergonomics. Subjects include work design, shift management, teamwork, virtual organizations, and crew resource management. We also include teleworking and quality management in this branch. Teleworking means working remotely, often at home.

Providing the right equipment and the right training is only part of the ergonomic solution. By designing or evaluating the system with ergonomic principles, it is possible to optimize productivity as a whole.

Video – What is ergonomics?

This Montana State Fund video explains the meaning of ergonomics using simple terms and easy-to-understand examples.