From The Ergoweb® Learning Center

Commentary: What is Ergonomics Really About?

The Good News: Public awareness of the word “ergonomics” in the USA has increased dramatically over the past few years.

The Bad News: Public understanding of what “ergonomics” actually means is limited, and sometimes very confused.

The US public’s understanding of ergonomics has been seriously skewed by OSHA’s recent attempts to regulate certain health and safety aspects in the workplace – namely “musculoskeletal disorders” (MSDs). True, when ergonomics principles are ignored in the workplace, MSDs are a potential outcome. However, that’s only part of the story, and the workplace is only one environment in which ergonomics principles are, or should be, applied. Ergonomics professionals, who are also sometimes known as human factors engineers, know there are many other negative outcomes when ergonomics principles are neglected, whether it’s in the workplace, a consumer product, a software interface, or a child’s toy. In many applications, an MSD is the least concern, or of no concern at all.

Events such as the Bhopal, India, Union Carbide Corporation chemical disaster that killed at least 2,500 people (Casey, 1993); the Three Mile Island Nuclear plant disaster; countless automobile accidents; and the crash of a US Marine Corp MV-22 Osprey, to name just a few examples, all have their roots in ergonomics/human factors problems. Misuse or unintended use of consumer products, a common liability for US businesses, often occur when ergonomics/human factors principles are neglected. Poor productivity and quality performance that drives a business to failure can often be traced directly to neglecting ergonomics in the design of products and production systems.

So, what does ergonomics really mean? You can find hundreds of definitions in the scientific literature, but we at ErgoWeb prefer to use an application oriented, proactive statement to describe ergonomics, such as:

Ergonomics removes barriers to quality, productivity and safe human performance in human-machine systems by fitting products, equipment, tools, systems, tasks, jobs and environments to people.

A concise definition proposed by Dempsey et al. (2000) boils it down to its very fundamental nature:

Ergonomics is the design and engineering of human-machine systems for the purpose of enhancing human performance.

Notice that neither of these mention work, workplace, or imply in any way that ergonomics is restricted to occupational activities – or to health and safety, for that matter. Ergonomics specialties that focus exclusively on the workplace are usually referred to as “occupational ergonomics,” or “industrial ergonomics.”

Ergonomics is a multidisciplinary field, drawing from engineering, psychology, safety, health and medical sciences. Most qualified professionals spend years in college, usually in graduate studies, learning the principles and applications of ergonomics, and then spend years in the field gaining applied experience before they’re able to obtain a recognized level of certification.

Ergonomics is not a new concept. When humans first began to use tools to accomplish tasks they couldn’t do with their bare hands, they were practicing ergonomics. When they refined those tools to function better, they were practicing ergonomics. The word, however, was not coined until 1857, when Wojciech Jastrzebowski, a Polish scholar, first derived it from the Greek words ergon (work) and nomos (principle or law).

In his original description of ergonomics, Jastrzebowski was careful to point out that he intended “work” to have a very broad meaning:

[T]his Science of Work, understood as Work in the comprehensive and integral sense, not merely its part that is physical labour or toil, but physical, aesthetic, rational, and moral work, that is Labour, Entertainment, Reasoning, and Dedication … — Wojciech Jastrzebowski, 1857

Furthermore, “work” has a much broader meaning in science and engineering, generally referring to any expenditure of energy.

So, when “the science of work” is used to describe the literal meaning of ergonomics, “work” should not be interpreted solely as an occupational or workplace issue.

All this being said, the workplace is a fertile environment for the application of ergonomics principles, and market demands push many of us to focus a large part of our professional attention toward occupational ergonomics. MSD reduction and management in the workplace is an important part of what we do, but so are improvements in design, production efficiencies, productivity, quality, and other bottom-line business principles. But, again, the workplace is only one part of the overall picture in our profession.

As the political push to regulate with respect to MSDs in US workplaces moves forward, I strongly recommend that the standard formerly known as the “Ergonomics Protection Standard” be renamed to reflect what it actually is: “Occupational Musculoskeletal Disorder Protection Standard.” This is far more accurate, and will go a long way toward reducing the public’s confusion about what ergonomics actually means. Furthermore, if American business and labor are less distracted by the politics of the workplace health and safety aspects of ergonomics, they will be more inclined to recognize and apply the broader principles of this important science for their common benefit, and for the benifit of those they serve.


Casey, Steven, (1993), Set Phasers on Stun and Other True Tales of Design, Technology, and Human Error, Aegean Publishing Company, Santa Barbara, California, USA.

Dempsey, Patrick G., Wogalter, Michael S., and Hancock, Peter A, (2000), What’s in a name? Using terms from definitions to examine the fundamental foundation of human factors and ergonomics science, Theoretical Issues in Ergonomics Science, 1(1), pp. 3-10.

Jastrzebowski, W., An outline of ergonomics, or the science of work based upon the truths drawn from the science of nature, originally published in Nature and Industry (1857), reprinted by the Central Institute for Labour Protection, (1997), Warsaw, Poland.