Although the term "ergonomics" is starting to become more mainstream, I continue to work with many injured individuals who do not know or understand the term. Yet, an ergonomic intervention may be the key to returning them to their job without pain. What exactly does the term "ergonomic" mean? Where does the meaning come from? And what is the importance?
The FreeDictionary.com defines ergonomics as the applied science of equipment design, as for the workplace, intended to maximize productivity by reducing operator fatigue and discomfort. Also called biotechnology, human engineering, human factors engineering. Chemicool.com takes a more personal and individual approach to the definition of ergonomics: the science that deals with adapting the work environment to the needs of the worker.
Ergonomic interventions are actually based on engineering principles. According to wikipedia, the term ergonomics is derived from the Greek words ergon [work] and nomos [natural laws]. The term was first used by Wojciech Jastrzębowski in his 1857 article Rys ergonomji czyli nauki o pracy, opartej na prawdach poczerpniętych z Nauki Przyrody (The Outline of Ergonomics, i.e. Science of Work, Based on the Truths Taken from the Natural Science). Initially, ergonomics were used to improve efficiency and productivity of manual laborers by eliminating unnecessary steps and actions.
During the time of World War II, as machinery started to became more complex, it became important to factor in not only the physical components of the job but also the human elements of the operator in terms of decision-making, attention to task, situational awareness and hand-eye coordination.
Now, with the coming of the Information Age, the risk of repetitive strain injuries (cumulative trauma disorders, musculoskeletal disorders), and sky-rocketing workers' compensation costs, ergonomics has become more about reducing the costs of potential injury as well as improving work efficiency.
Ergonomics is now the shared domain of health care professionals such as physical and occupational therapists in addition to engineers. The blending of techniques borrowing from the skills of both professions has changed the course of ergonomics, helped reduce injury-related costs, and saved many people from experiencing potentially life-changing work-related injuries.
Marji Hajic is an occupational therapist and a certified hand therapist practicing in Santa Barbara, California. For more information on hand and upper extremity injuries, prevention and recovery, please visit Hand Health Resources.