Facts vs. Fiction

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Fiction vs Facts

Fiction: Ergonomics lacks a scientific basis.
Fact: Ergonomics has a history originating in military scientific research.

Ergonomics was first written about in 1857 and came to the fore during World War II. One of the most publicised and well-known early examples of an ergonomics approach to solving technical problems came in 1943 when the US air force observed that fully functional aircraft flown by the best trained pilots still frequently crashed. Why? A multidisciplinary ergonomics analysis by a combined team of aeronautical engineers and psychologists discovered that the cockpit controls were not easy for the pilots to see and use. The designers then reduced pilot error through a human capability-focused redesign of those controls.
Meanwhile, across the seas in Britain, Hywel Murrell (a trained chemist, and known by some as the father of the ergonomics profession) began work for the Royal Navy gunnery research department – matching tools and layouts to human capability. His work was recognised when was appointed head of the Naval Motion unit. In 1949, Murrell invited a small group of like minded people to a meeting at the Admiralty, and from this meeting the Ergonomics Research Society was formed. In 1951 Murrell launched the first government ergonomics department for British industry and in 1952 was instrumental in the birth and shaping of the British Ergonomics Society.

Fiction: Ergonomics is the science of belief.
Fact: Scientifically valid studies have routinely shown the efficacy of ergonomics.

Ergonomics looks at work in context. As such, research is mostly done in the field (workplace) rather than in the laboratory. While this does make extraneous variables harder to control – it also gives a more accurate real world understanding of outcomes. My investigation revealed extensive real-world studies (including peer reviewed) across a multiple industries which have shown ergonomics to be effective.

Three examples with large sample sizes:

A review of a three year Participatory Ergonomics program for 88,000 US postal workers which found a 19% reduction in strains, better safety scores, better morale and improved mail flow.
A six year study across 17 geographically diverse US aluminium manufacturing businesses with 24,041 people, which concluded: “evidence of a substantial, positive impact of systematic ergonomic HC [Hazard Control] implementation on worker MSD [Musculoskeletal Disorders = sprains and strains] and injury risk… systematic ergonomic HC implementation was associated with reduced risk for all injuries as well as MSD only.”

A systematic review of the effects of human factors and ergonomics on “Health Care Patient Safety Practices”. This reviewed 28 studies (20 were controlled, 2 were randomized controlled trials and 8 were before/after studies without controls but met the quality assessment criteria) and 3,227 participants. The author’s concluded: “The results showed that the interventions positively affected the outcomes of health care workers” and that “the human factors and ergonomic interventions fairly consistently led to improvements in both health care workers’ outcomes and patient safety”

There are a range of examples of successfully implemented ergonomic solutions divided by industry at the United States Department of Labour ergonomics success stories page. Having looked at the history and research base for ergonomics I am pleased to be reassured that the positive stories we hear from our clients were backed up by a strong body of scientific enquiry. Like any discipline, we do not have every answer – yet. It was good to uncover some new studies and schools of thought that will continue to help improve the field and the comfort, health and safety of people at work and home.

Fiction: “Ergonomic” furniture is always better.
Fact: Be Cautious- Ergonomic doesn’t always mean Ergonomic.

Unlike other professions, “ergonomics” is not a protected term – this means anyone can use it – and they have! This includes people who claim to be ‘ergonomists’ but may have little or no training or experience in the field, and claims made by salespeople and marketers. The professional title of “ergonomist” has unfortunately been diluted by some to include anyone who chooses to adjust a screen or chair – without reference to the multiple degrees or rigorous multidisciplinary training that qualified ergonomists obtain and draw upon. Additionally, some people incorrectly reduce “ergonomics” to simply mean office furniture.
Don’t believe everything you read – ensure any advice you receive is from a credible source.

Fiction: Anyone in the health science fields can consider themselves as an ergonomist and effectively apply the principles.
Fact: Ergonomics is complex and requires experience and specific training.

When you give relationship advice or moral support to your friend – do you consider yourself a psychologist? No (well maybe for a short while). You may be able to impart some helpful wisdom, however if your friend worked with a trained psychologist both the process and long-term outcomes would follow an evidence base and result in quite different results. The same is true for ergonomics. To look at an isolated part – such as treating all workers with sore backs the same – is contrary to the fundamentals of an ergonomic approach – which looks at the whole situation, from the tasks you do, the context you do them in, and personal attributes.
Only then are appropriate “interventions” (solutions/improvements) proposed. The lens that Certified Professional Ergonomists look through goes well beyond common sense and draws on understandings of a wide number of scientific disciplines. These include, but are in no way restricted to – how humans think, how different bodies work and are known to react to stressors such as vibration and postures, the effect of light and sound, the resistance and conductivity of the kinds of materials that are engaged with and the holistic structure of tasks such as whether workers are rotated and when and what kind of breaks are included. When engaging an ergonomist, ensure that they have formal qualifications, relevant training, and access to the latest tools and equipment available for analysing force, light or populations, for example. Ask them about the awareness they have of related scientific studies and legal standards, and also the kind of solutions they have suggested previously in similar workplace situations, and why?

Fiction: Ergonomics is just about office furniture.
Fact: Ergonomics may not be the most famous field, but it is everywhere.

While ergonomics is often associated with office design and has long been applied to problems in manufacturing, healthcare and transport – all of the big brands like HP, Apple and Ford embrace ergonomics.
Do you remember cumbersome mobiles before the iPhone? What about cars with uncomfortable bench seats, huge blindspots, hard to open doors and shoulder straining three-on-the-tree gear sticks? These are just some of the fields where ergonomists have made our lives easier through a human- centred approach to the design of work, workplaces, tools, products and layout – work they have been doing since that US airforce pilot cockpit redesign in WW2.
Today there are more than 60 ISO ergonomics standards on various aspects of product and systems design, all with the goal of improving performance, comfort, and safety as well as preventing errors and injuries.

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