From The Ergoweb® Learning Center

New ISO Standard: Ergonomics — General Approach, Principles and Concepts

Standards can be a frustrating and contentious topic within the ergonomics community. From one perspective, standards are feared because they have the potential to restrict innovation and creativity, and they can be heavily influenced by the political processes through which they often evolve. From another perspective, standards are viewed as representations of a minimum level of understanding or compliance, and supporters turn to them as a means to engage parties that may otherwise completely ignore or misrepresent ergonomics. 

Further complicating the issue is the multi-disciplinary nature of ergonomics. It can be hard enough to get a group of engineers, for example, to agree on any one issue … or a group of physical therapists … or occupational therapists … or kinesiologists … or psychologists … or safety specialists … or orthopeadic surgeons … or sports medicine specialists … or chiropractors … or nurses … or architects … or human resource specialists … or interior designers … or furniture sales people … or anyone else that might represent themselves as an ergonomist or have an interest in the application of ergonomics. 

And don’t forget to throw in regional and national borders and some cultural and philosophical differences to keep everyone on their toes. Put us all in the same room (or virtual discussion), and it’s no wonder reaching agreement becomes a challenge! However, wherever you may stand on the question of standards, the reality is, like all professions, fields of specialization and market segments, standards are inevitable in ergonomics, and it’s in our best interest to at least stay abreast with their content, if not participate and influence their development to achieve the best possible outcomes.

ISO 26800:2011, "Ergonomics — General approach, principles and concepts," is the latest ergonomics standard to come from the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). I’m sure we could pick this standard apart word-by-word and debate a few things, but I’m happy to report that it is a concise high level introduction to the basics of human-centered design (ergonomics) and deserves a place in your library if you are practicing ergonomics, especially if doing so on an international scale or with global institutions. This standard could also serve as a useful catalyst to introduce non-ergonomists to the nature and necessity of human-centered design.

In the rest of the article I provide a summary of it’s content. Due to copyright restrictions, this review is cursory, but should give you enough knowledge to understand its purpose and place in the practice of ergonomics, and whether you or your clients might need a copy of your/their own.

The Standard’s introduction lays a nice foundation:

… The science of ergonomics has evolved from its origins in the context of work to embrace many other fields of application, such as home and leisure. However, whatever the context, the underlying principles of ergonomics remain the same, although the relative emphasis placed on them will vary. These principles are fundamental to the design process wherever human involvement is expected, in order to ensure the optimum integration of human requirements and characteristics into a design …

It adeptly captures a high level view of the way in which ergonomics is applied by recognizing the integrated nature of ergonomics, which it describes as addressing a wide range of issues, including physical, cognitive, social and organizational with the goal to improve safety, performance and usability (effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction), while safeguarding and enhancing human health and well-being, and improving accessibility.

Like most standards, ISO 26800:2011 begins with a description of its scope and a section for terms and definitions. The scope identifies the target users for this Standrad as going well beyond ergonomists to include:

  • project managers
  • managers
  • workers
  • consumers
  • purcurors
  • standards developers dealing with ergonomics aspects

The terms and definitions section includes definitions for:

  • accessibility
  • ergonomics/human factors
  • environment
  • external load
  • fatigue
  • internal load
  • system
  • target population
  • usability
  • user
  • worker
  • work system

The body of the 18-page standard contains sections titled: The ergonomics approach; Principles of ergonomics; Concepts in ergonomics; The ergonomics-oriented design process; and Conformity

In The Ergonomics Approach section the Standard states that In order to achieve optimized system performance, all these factors shall be taken into account:

  • purpose of the system, product or service
  • characteristics of the intended target population
  • goals to be achieved and tasks to be performed
  • existing constraints
  • factors of the physical, organizational and social environments
  • system/product life cycle

The Standard is also careful to separate and present both principles and concepts. It describes principles as fundamental to an ergonomics-oriented design process … and serve to distinguish an ergonomics approach from other approaches that do not observe these principles. Concepts are described as providing the means for interpreting, addressing and evaluating design from an ergonomics perspective.

The specific Principles include:

  1. Human-Centered
    1. Target Population
    2. Task Oriented
    3. Environmental Context
  2. Criteria-Based Evaluation

The specific Concepts include:

  1. The system concept
  2. Load-effects concept
  3. Usability
  4. Accessibility

The Ergonomics-Oriented Design Process

  1. Basic requirements for an ergonomics-oriented design process

As with any standard, a key challenge is recognizing whether or not you are in conformance. The Conformity section states that conformance shall be acheived by:

  1. satisfying all the applicable requirements;
  2. identifying applicable recommendations;
  3. explaining why particular requirements and recommendations are not applicable;
  4. stating wether or not the applicable recommendations have been followed.

There are also two Annex sections: Sustainability; and Textual descriptions of the figures for visually impaired readers (this section practices what ergonomists and this standard preach — accessibility — by providing detailed text descriptions of the graphics and figures contained in the standard). The introduction to the Sustainability section, which is informative in nature, states:

In modern society, a key issue is to encourage socially responsible designs through consideration of sustainability, which can be defined as forms of progress that meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. In terms of standardization, this involves considering the integration of, and balances between, economic, social and environmental considerations. Ergonomics can support all three of these considerations.

The final section of ISO 26800:2011 is a bibliography with 24 references to other documents and other ISO ergonomics-related standards, of which there are now many.


You may purchase ISO 26800:2011 by selecting the ISO member organization of your choice at

This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2011-10-20.