Ergonomics is a combination of two Greek words: ergo which means work, and ergonomics which means the study of. So, in simple terms, ergonomics is the study of work. In practice, ergonomics is the science of fitting the job or task to the worker instead of the other way around. Many different disciplines are involved in that effort. They all have to consider the worker as a major component in the design of jobs, work stations, equipment and machinery.

However, jobs and equipment are usually designed to maximize productivity with little thought to worker comfort. The bad design of work and equipment has led to worker pain and sometimes disability, which decreases productivity. Ergonomics helps to reduce job related injuries, illnesses, and stresses, and to increase job satisfaction, which leads to improve productivity.

It is because of these illnesses and injuries that ergonomics as a science has gotten increasing attention. Most people have now heard of ergonomics, carpal tunnel syndrome, and other cumulative trauma disorders because there have been numerous reports and news stories. Carpal tunnel syndrome is the most frequently documented work-related musculoskeletal disorder.

Although the rate of upper extremity disorders has dropped, it is still a large problem. In the health care field, the rate is rising, mostly due to lifting tasks. Repetitive computer keyboard use continues to cause pain and injury.

The following table shows the different sciences that are integrated in the effort to create a better fit between the worker and the job.

Ergonomics - A Multidisciplinary Approach to Workplace Design
Discipline Tools of the trade
Occupational medicine Anatomy
Injury and illness epidemiology
Industrial Engineering Biomechanics
Time and motion study
Job analysis
Human factors engineering
Industrial hygiene Noise
Industrial psychology Behavioral, emotional and attitudinal measures of workplace stress

Ergonomics is used to address cumulative trauma disorders--also known as musculoskeletal disorders or repetitive motion disorders--caused by repeated, often forceful movements. The upper limbs and the back are the most commonly affected areas, although the lower limbs can also be affected.

Contributing Factors

Risk factors for cumulative trauma disorders include:

  • Repetitiveness
  • High frequency of movements
  • Excessive muscular force
  • Vibration
  • Posture (awkward hand/wrist postures)
  • Mechanical stress (direct pressure)
  • Cold temperatures

Office Design

You analyze your job to see if any risk factors are present and use ergonomics to improve your job design. For example:

Chair: Your chair should be adjustable for height and back tilt. When you sit in it, you should be able to put your feet on the floor, sit upright with good back support. You should be able to adjust it to your body so you can sit comfortably for long periods of time.

Work Surface: How you adjust your chair will depend on the height of your working surface. Your desk should have enough room for the things you use daily. It should be at a height that allows you to rest your forearms on it for support. It should have rounded edges so you don't have mechanical pressures on your wrists. If you use a computer and keyboard, your forearms should be at a 75 to 90 degree angle to your upper arms. Of course, the type of work you do will also affect the height of the working surface.

Foot Rests: You may need to use a foot rest if you cannot get the right adjustments between your chair and your working surface. The foot rest should be able to angle up to 15 degrees towards the toes.

Arm Rests: Most chairs have arm rests which support the forearms. This may reduce muscle strain and fatigue, but only if the arm rests are soft and padded. If they are hard, they may put more stress on the elbows.

Computer Monitor: The video display terminal should be placed so that you can easily see all the characters without having to lean your head and body closer to the screen or away from it. In general, it should be 14 to 30 inches in front of you, with the center of the screen at about the same height as your chin. Place the monitor away from light sources to avoid glare on the screen. Glare and inadequate lighting can lead to eye strain.

Eye Strain

To avoid eye strain:

  • Look away from the VDT from time to time
  • Use a screen filter
  • Move the VDT to get better placement
  • Use glasses with anti-glare reflective or ultraviolet coating. (You can get these even if you don't wear glasses.)
  • Keep the screen clean, it helps keep distortion down.
  • Adjust the brightness/contrast every once in a while.
  • Get up and walk around. Stretch your body. Give it time to recover from the repetitive stresses.

What can you do?

  • Report problems and get medical treatment early on. This will help keep the problem from getting worse.
  • Look at your workstation to see if there are ways to improve it. For example, placing items you use often close to you to avoid over-reaching and requesting a wrist or foot rest.
  • Work with your management to modify your work and your workstation.
  • Take rest breaks. Even a short break can give the body time to recover. It doesn't have to be down time. If you do a lot of typing, you can do something else for a few minutes, such as return calls or review correspondence.

Preventing Back Injuries

In evaluating the workplace design, it's important to look for excessive repetitiveness, reaching, lifting, twisting/turning. Other factors specifically involved with manual material handling include:

  • Object (weight, size, handles, weight distribution, stability of material)
  • People (strength & endurance, age, sex, body size, training)
  • Job (lift height, travel distance, workplace layout, frequency, object manipulation)
  • Work practices (techniques, training, personal protective equipment, how people feel about safety)

To reduce the risk of injury, you can:

Control distance

  • bring things in as close as possible, preferably within 8 inches from the body
  • alter the workplace
  • reduce object size
  • work from long side of cartons
  • slide object to body before lifting

Control lift heights

  • use tables and stands to keep things off the floor
  • put handles on the tops of objects
  • use scissors and lift tables, and spring loaded carts

Control twisting

  • layout should be such that objects are in front of workers
  • increase the distance the object will be moved so that a twist won't work

Control frequency

  • move multiple objects with mechanical force
  • use conveyors, slides or mechanical lifts instead of manual lifting

Control forces

  • reduce size and weight of objects
  • make equipment available and easy to use
  • put less material in container
  • make it too big to handle manually

OSHA's Ergonomics Standard

The Fight for an Ergonomics Standard

AFGE has been fighting for an ergonomics standard for decades. Since 1990 when then Secretary of Labor Elizabeth Dole declared ergonomics an issue that OSHA must address, AFGE has participated in stakeholders? meetings, testified at public hearings and forums, and submitted written comments for the record. Many of the employees AFGE represents are at risk of developing musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) from performing computer-related jobs and back injuries from jobs that involve heavy lifting.

In November 1999, after 10 years research, discussion, and compromise, OSHA published its proposed ergonomics standard and in March-May 2000 held weeks of public hearings in Washington, DC, and hearings in Portland, Oregon, and Chicago, Illinois. Both supporters and opponents of the standard had an opportunity to voice their opinions and submit evidence to the docket. Although we felt the standard should have been more protective and proactive, we strongly supported it. President Bill Clinton signed the ergonomics standard into law in November 2000, set to go into effect on January 16, 2001. The rule was expected to protect 27 million workers at 1.9 million workplaces from repetitive motion injuries and illnesses. Workers and their unions celebrated this victory.

Just two months later, using the little known and never before used Congressional Review Act, a business friendly Congress voted to repeal the ergonomics standard. On March 20, 2001, President George W. Bush signed the legislation that did away with the ergonomics standard, leaving thousands of workers at risk of musculoskeletal disorders. It took Congress only hours of consideration to undo the work of over ten years to get an ergonomics standard. The CRA prohibits OSHA from issuing a new standard in "substantially the same form." Since the repeal of ergonomics standard, more than 500,000 workers have suffered unnecessarily -- every 18 seconds, a worker gets a musculoskeletal disorder.

The AFL-CIO and affiliated unions, including AFGE, continued to pressure the Department of Labor to do its job and protect workers from ergonomics-related injuries and illnesses. The federation submitted a petition [include link to AFL-CIO petition? It?s in the ergo section.] to Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao requesting that she not turn her back on workers and instead proceed with developing a new ergonomics standard. In Congress, bills were introduced in the House and the Senate that would require the Secretary of Labor to address MSDs and ergonomics within two years. No further action has been taken on the bills.

On June 7, 2001, Secretary Chao announced a series of public "forums" to address ergonomics. While we welcomed action on the issue, we were disappointed that the Secretary chose to take valuable time to "discuss" the issue instead of moving to develop a new standard. The forums were to address three questions:

  1. What is an ergonomics injury?
  2. How can the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, employers and employees determine whether an ergonomics injury was caused by work-related activities or non-work-related activities; and, if the ergonomics injury was caused by a combination of the two, what is the appropriate response?
  3. What are the most useful and cost-effective types of government involvement to address workplace ergonomics injuries (e.g., rulemaking, guidelines, best practices, publications/conferences, technical assistance, consultations, partnerships or combinations of such approaches)?

These questions have already been asked -and answered time and time again, including twice in 1998 and in 2001 by the National Academy of Sciences in Congressionally-mandated reports.

They are questions industry asks to confuse the issue and to further delay real action on ergonomics.

In written comments, AFGE National President Bobby Harnage wrote "We wish OSHA were asking questions like, What can OSHA do to better protect workers from MSDs?; How can businesses/employers learn from the successful programs implemented by some companies? and, How can OSHA, employers, and unions help workers protect themselves from musculoskeletal disorders?"

On July 16 an 17, 2001, the Washington D.C. area forum was held at George Mason University in Arlington, VA. Other forums were held at the University of Chicago on July 20 and at Stanford University in California on July 24. AFGE was represented at the Arlington, VA, forum by Howard Egerman, a health and safety representative who is also an injured worker. Howard developed carpal tunnel syndrome and deQuervain?s syndrome working as a Social Security claims representative. Howard was one of the few labor representatives selected to speak at the forums. Unlike the public hearings held last year where everyone who asked got a chance to speak, DOL selected the presenters for the forum. More than 100 workers who requested to speak at the forums were denied the opportunity.

At the DC forum, industry representatives banded together against OSHA promulgating a new standard. They want OSHA to take no further action on ergonomics until there is "credible scientific evidence." They claim that most employers are already addressing ergonomics and they want OSHA to let them continue. However, the evidence is already there and if employers were doing a good job addressing ergonomics there would not be the tremendous number of problems workers are experiencing.

In the absence of an OSHA ergonomics standard, AFGE is continuing to promote worker protection through education on ergonomics, including ergonomics language in collective bargaining agreements, participating in health and safety committees, and joining other unions in pushing for state regulations on ergonomics.

To learn more about ergonomics and the fight to have a protective ergonomics standard, check out the OSHA website at

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