Ergonomics is a science that attempts to make our workplace more efficient
and safe. It focuses on how people work best. It is "user-centered," not "machine-centered."
In other words, the goal of ergonomics is to make machines that fit us,
not make us fit machines. For example, telephones with big buttons or vegetable
peelers with soft handles are examples of making tools easier for people to
use. In short, user-friendly!
Ergonomists study what people do and how they do it. Then they come up
with ideas to help people do things more efficiently and more safely.
These ideas might mean a new design for the product, a better maintenance
system or more training for the user.
"Often we blame ourselves when we have trouble using something and so we
think the problem lies with us. But if the designer of this thing understood
the dynamics of how people perceive, [how] they think and they react, and
incorporated this into the design, then you wouldn't be having any trouble
with it," says Stuart Parsons, an ergonomist in Santa Cruz, California.
Because ergonomics is focused on the human user, it is also called "human
factors" or "human engineering."
Ergonomics is concerned with more than convenience. Human factors experts
say their major concern is safety. Sometimes that concern involves more people
than those just working the machine.
"In a typical nuclear power plant, you'd find between 12,000 and 16,000
controls and displays the operators have to be familiar with. These plant
systems were made with almost no concern for the operator, so the margin for
error is quite high. A human factors approach to that plant would make it
a lot safer," says Parsons.
"If you use good human factors, you're going to have less human error,"
agrees West Coast ergonomist Tracy Yee.
Ergonomists apply their user-friendly ideas to a huge variety of products,
tools, jobs and systems. Automobiles, spaceships, industrial plants, telephones,
computers, software, nuclear power plants, office furniture and tractors are
all examples of the kinds of things ergonomists work on.
Ergonomists may specialize in the needs of one particular industry or group
of people. Each specialty requires the ergonomist to have knowledge in a range
of technical matters. Areas of specialty include:
As you can tell from this list, ergonomists are a pretty diverse bunch.
The Human Factors Society of America says about 60 percent of all ergonomists
have a mechanical or industrial engineering background, 30 percent have a
background in psychology and 10 percent of ergonomists come from other disciplines.
"You can come at ergonomics from a number of different angles, because
it's both a science and an art," says Washington ergonomist Dieter Jahns.
"It's a science because it involves so much data, but it's an art because
it studies humans and we don't know that much about humans yet."
Ergonomics is a good field for team players to go into, since people in
this career often work with groups of researchers, engineers and other ergonomists.
Communication skills are also a must.
Ergonomists can be found working for universities and colleges, private
industry, military research and design centers, government agencies and independent
research and consulting agencies. They may also run their own consulting business.
Create safe and efficient workplaces