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What is ergonomics? Definition and meaning

Most people think that ergonomics is all about seating or car control designs – it is – but  it is also considerably more than just that. It is the process of arranging and designing places of work, systems and products so that they fit the humans who use them.

Ergonomics or ‘human factors’ includes the design of anything that involves humans – whether it be safety, leisure, sports or workplaces. The two terms can be used interchangeably.

Ergonomics is used more often in relation to the physical aspects of the environment, such as control panels and workstations, while human factors is more frequently used in relation to the wider system in which people work.

ErgonomicsErgonomics helps us harmonize things that interact with humans in terms of 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

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

It brings together knowledge from other subjects such as physiology, anatomy, psychology, statistics and engineering to ensure that designs complement our strengths and abilities and minimize the effects of our limitations.

Ergonomics The WorkplaceAccording to “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:

Rather than expecting humans to adapt to a design that forces them to work in a stressful, uncomfortable or dangerous way, ergenomics and human factors specialists aim to understand how a workplace, system or product can be designed to suit the people who have to use it.

The aim of the ergonomist is to minimize injury or harm, and improve productivity and comfort in the workplace and other environments.

In our world today, technologies change rapidly, new products appear on the market every week. There is a need to make sure that our work tools, as well as anything we use at home or for leisure, are designed for the requirements of our bodies.

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, comfort and safety.

Ergonomics for ChildrenAnybody who teaches, supervises, protects and designs products and systems for children is considering ergonomic factors every day. (Image: Ergonomics for Children. Publishers: Taylor & Francis)

Ergonomics covers all lifestyles, workplaces, leisure environments, and age groups – including children

Domains of specialization

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

Physical Ergonomics: is concerned with anthropometric (study of the measurements and proportions of the human body), anatomical, physiological and biomechanical features as they relate to human activity.

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

Cognitive Ergonomics: is concerned with mental processes, including reasoning, motor response, memory and perception, as they affect interactions among people and other elements in a system.

Relevant topics include human-computer interaction, mental workload, decision-making, human reliability, work stress and training as these may relate to human-system design.

Organizational Ergonomics: deals with the optimization of systems. It is also known as Systems Ergonomics. Subjects include work design, shift (work hours) management, teamwork, virtual organizations, crew resource management, telework, and quality management. Telework (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 in with simple terms and easy-to-understand examples.