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Ergonomists are concerned with the relationship between people and work, studying and dealing with the limitations and possibilities of the human body. They deal with organizational structure, worker productivity, and job satisfaction. Ergonomists are important consultants on many levels: They help employees work in safer environments, they allow employers to achieve higher levels of productivity, and they educate workers. Ergonomists adapt environments to the task in order to decrease the number of work-related illnesses and injuries.
Ergonomists work to ensure that people can perform their work in the safest manner possible. To be ergonomically sound, a task should allow for three basic principles: It should be able to be completed in several different and safe manners, the largest appropriate muscle groups should be used, and joints should be at approximately the middle of their range of movement.
This first principle implies that a task shouldn't be so repetitive that the worker is limited to only one set of movements to complete it. Over time, repetitive actions can lead to muscle and joint trauma. Ergonomists help people avoid repetitive strain injuries. For instance, ergonomists often are called to an assembly line to study the workers' motions. They may suggest different ways for the employees to complete their tasks while still being safe and efficient.
The second principle of ergonomics has to do with muscle work. Larger muscle groups are often better suited to a task than smaller ones. For instance, when lifting a heavy box from the ground, many people tend to bend at the waist and lift the box using the strength in their arms. But this approach can lead to muscle strain in the arms and the back. A better approach is to bend at the knees, grip the box to the chest, and lift up slowly, using leg power. By using the longer, stronger leg muscles to lift items, you can reduce your risk of injury. In the workplace, ergonomists study how much weight employees have to lift during the day, and suggest alternate ways to use their bodies or distribute the weight onto different muscle groups.
Proper ergonomic form requires joints to be as close to the middle of their range as possible, which means that you should not hyper- or hypo-extend your arms or legs. Joints perform best when they are not too straight and are not too bent. An ergonomist might be called on to help an employee who works at a computer terminal all day. The ergonomist might watch the person at work for a little while, and then determine that the worker's arm and shoulder pain may be caused by the mouse and keyboard placement. If the worker has to extend his arm fully to reach the mouse, he locks his elbow and moves his arm at an unnatural and uncomfortable angle.
Guided by these basic principles, ergonomists work with ideas, processes, and people to help make the workplace safer and more comfortable. An ergonomist who deals primarily in design creates machines and other materials that are both usable and comfortable to the user. This may include physiological research on how certain types of work-related injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, occur.
These professionals study mathematics and physics, in conjunction with the human form, in order to gain a better understanding of how people can avoid performing unsafe and repetitive motions that lead to injury.
Other ergonomists adopt a more hands-on approach by going out in the field to study a workplace and ascertain the needs of particular employees in specific work situations. Their clients may be as varied as secretaries working in front of the computer, factory workers installing headlights in new automobiles, and travel agents working with telephones propped on their shoulders all day. These ergonomists may study assembly-line procedures and suggest changes to reduce monotony and make it easier for workers to load or unload materials, thereby obtaining optimum efficiency in terms of human capabilities. They may also investigate environmental factors such as lighting and room temperature, which might influence workers' behavior and productivity. In an office setting, an ergonomist is likely to make suggestions about keyboard placement and monitor height to help alleviate injuries. Rearrangement of furniture is often one of the easiest ways to make a workplace safer and more comfortable.
Ergonomists usually work as part of a team, with different specialists focusing on a particular aspect of the work environment. For example, one ergonomist may deal with the safety aspects of machinery, and another may specialize in environmental issues, such as the volume of noise and the layout of the surroundings. After analyzing relevant data and observing how workers interact in the work environment, ergonomists submit a written report of their findings and make recommendations to company executives or representatives for changes or adaptations in the workplace. Their suggestions might be as simple as moving a desk closer to the window to allow for more natural light or installing task lighting to reduce eyestrain. They may make proposals for new machinery or suggest a revised design for machinery already in place. They may also suggest environmental changes, like painting walls or soundproofing a noisy work area, so employees can better enjoy the work environment.
Ergonomists may focus on something as large as redesigning the computer terminals for a large multinational corporation, or they may design more comfortable chairs or easier-to-use telephones at a local family-owned business. They may work as consultants for government agencies and manufacturing companies or engage in research at colleges or universities. Often, an ergonomist will specialize in one particular system or application.
Ergonomists are also concerned with the social work environment. They are involved with personnel training and development as well as with the interaction between people and machines. Ergonomists may, for example, plan various kinds of tests that will help screen applicants for employment with the firms. They assist engineers and technicians in designing systems that require people and machines to interact. Ergonomists may also develop aids for training people to use those systems.