From The Ergoweb® Learning Center

Perspectives on Ergonomics

Dan MacLeod, CPE, MA, MPH

Intro1 Intro2
Before: Slower, harder After: Faster, easier

Ergonomics is a wide-ranging field that seeks to design tools, equipment, and tasks to optimize human capabilities. The goals are to simultaneously improve both production and employee well-being.  The workplace process is to take a systematic and engineering-based approach to working smarter, not harder.

Historical roots


Roots1 Roots2 Roots3
Methods engineering
Aircraft cockpit design
Prevention of musculoskeletal disorders (1970s)


The field draws from multiple roots, as described in Ergonomics — Foundation for Production.  It is an interdisciplinary field that draws from engineering, psychology, physiology, medicine, industrial design, and others.

Common definitions and phrases

There are a number of catch-phrases that are commonly used to describe the field.  These are outlined below, along with a number of perspectives to help clarify understanding.

Fit the task to the person

 Fit1 Fit2
Too low — Constantly bent back Raised table legs — Better for the back

Probably the best phrase to explain the field is “fit the task to the person, not the person to the task.” Whenever we set up a piece of equipment, we need to ask, “How does the human fit in?” When designing a tool or planning a task, we need to consider human strengths and limitations.

Make things user-friendly

Friendly1 Friendly2
Unfriendly — No fixture Friendly — Good fixture

The term user-friendly is synonymous with ergonomics. Anything that can be described as user-friendly can also be said to be ergonomic; unfriendly items are not ergonomic. All of the examples on this page could be used to show items that are friendly or unfriendly.

User-friendly means that things are easy to understand and apply, that mistakes are reduced, and that the human is treated well in the process. These concepts apply to both physical issues as well as mental or cognitive ones.

Work smarter, not harder

Smarter1 Smarter2
Harder: Bending Smarter: Broom handle to hold roll

A time-worn phrase that most people aspire to is “work smarter, not harder.” But how one actually goes about doing so is left unstated. Ergonomics remedies that by providing a method for systematically finding smarter ways of working.

The rules of work

Rules1 Rules2 Rules3

The term ergonomics was coined from the Greek words ergon (meaning “work”) and nomos (meaning “rules”); so the literal meaning is “the rules of work.” These rules can guide you to making many good improvements.

Optimize the human-system interface

Optimize1 Optimize2
Simple system: Several points of interface More complex system: Multiple points of interface

A more formal definition of ergonomics is to “optimize the interface between humans and systems.” Whenever one designs a more effective interface between a human and a tool or task, that is ergonomics.

In the photos above, the chair has several points of interface with the human: cushioning, height adjustment, backrest, etc.  The machine tool is more complex and involves multiple points of interface: the tooling, the fixture, lighting, standing surface, control panel, and using the door.

Perspectives on the field

It’s not just for work

Fish1 Fish2
Bass boat chair Balanced rod and reel

Ergonomics can be applied to any human activity, including home chores and leisure activities.

It doesn’t have to be hard

Hard1 Hard2
Advanced analysis — For professionals only Typical workplace issue — You don’t need a Ph.D.

Although some technical aspects of ergonomics are difficult, practical application at work does not have to be hard. Many problems are obvious once you start looking.  And anyone can have a good idea.

It doesn’t have to be expensive

Expensive1 Expensive2
Manipulator arm — High end PVC half-pipe to eliminate walking and carrying — Low cost

On some occasions improvements take capital investment, but very often the best solutions are inexpensive or even free. It just takes some creativity and thinking.

It’s not necessarily new

Sickle1 Sickle2

The term ergonomics might be new, but the concepts have been around since the earliest humans. A good example is a famous ergonomic device invented in the 19th Century — the two-handed scythe. They didn’t use the word ergonomics then, but the scythe contains many features that we would consider to be ergonomic today: the long handle eliminates the need to bend, the grips are adjustable, the shape takes advantage of the larger muscles in the torso and provides for greater range of motion.

Consequently, farmers could cut more crops with less wear and tear on themselves. (A combine is better, but that came later.)