What is ergonomics?

Find out how it makes life better

“Ergonomics 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 optimise human well-being and overall system performance.” International Ergonomics Association

The terms ‘ergonomics’ and ‘human factors’ can be used interchangeably, although ‘ergonomics’ is often used in relation to the physical aspects of the environment, such as workstations and control panels, while ‘human factors’ is often used in relation to wider system in which people work. On this site we generally use the term that fits most closely with the research or the industry that we are discussing.

Ergonomics is a science-based discipline that brings together knowledge from other subjects such as anatomy and physiology, psychology, engineering and statistics to ensure that designs complement the strengths and abilities of people and minimise the effects of their limitations. Rather than expecting people to adapt to a design that forces them to work in an uncomfortable, stressful or dangerous way, ergonomists and human factors specialists seek to understand how a product, workplace or system can be designed to suit the people who need to use it.

In achieving this aim, we need to understand and design for the variability represented in the population, spanning such attributes as age, size, strength, cognitive ability, prior experience, cultural expectations and goals. Qualified ergonomists are the only recognised professionals to have competency in optimising performance, safety and comfort. The CIEHF is the only body in the UK managing and representing this competency.

You usually don’t notice good design, unless it’s exceptionally good, because it gives us no cause to. But you do notice poor design. If you’ve ever got lost in an airport with poor signage, stared helplessly at a machine with incomprehensible instructions, cut your hands on poor packaging or sighed as you had to move things around to reach something you need, you know that a lack of ergonomic design can be incredibly frustrating. But it’s not just the small, everyday things in which ergonomics has a role.

In the transport sector and in aviation in particular, the adoption of a human factors approach has changed the design of air traffic control systems, flightdecks and aircraft interiors. Human factors specialists are embedded within the teams that deliver our national air traffic services. They support the development of the technology that enables us to manage one of the most crowded areas of airspace in the world, whilst maintaining an exemplary safety record. New sensor and communications technologies have led to advanced glass cockpits in military and civilian aircraft; ergonomics and human factors ensures that these advances are implemented in a way that enables the human pilot to remain ‘in the loop’ when controlling the aircraft, as well as taking advantage of the accurate sensing and visualisation tools provided by engineering innovations. And, as passengers, we are now helped to evacuate safely from aircraft through designs of interior lights and safety information, informed by ergonomics research.

For many years, the high-hazard industries have recognised the importance of minimising the risk from human error. The nuclear sector has led the way in understanding, measuring and improving human reliability, and it has an enviable reputation, having avoided the major accidents which have marred other industry sectors, such as the Buncefield oil depot explosion. UK nuclear regulation is seen by many as the gold-standard.

In healthcare, ergonomists and human factors professionals are working in partnership with clinicians, managers and IT specialists to ensure a safe and resilient 21st century healthcare system. Much focus has been placed on improving communications between clinicians, ensuring that teams of doctors and nurses work together to make effective decisions and reduce the likelihood of harm. In addition to this important work, many pieces of equipment that we find in a clinical setting, from ambulances, to drips that deliver life-saving drugs, have been developed and evaluated by human factors experts.

Our multidisciplinary perspective allows us to transfer our knowledge between applications, for example, ergonomists working with Great Ormond Street Hospital have studied Formula 1 pitstops in order to understand methods and efficiencies in teamwork for application in paediatric heart surgery.