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Ergonomics: Biotechnology or Human Factors Engineering

Ergonomics as defined by the international Ergonomics Association is the application of scientific information concerning humans to the design of object systems and environment for human use. It is also called Biotechnology, Human Engineering or Human Factors Engineering.

Historically, there is evidence that the Greeks used ergonomic principles in the 5th century BC to design tools and plan their workplaces. An excellent example of this is Hippocrates' description or a surgeon's workplace.

Traditionally, Ergonomics has been used in industry for maximizing the efficiency of workers and the quality of work done. But if one looks at what Ergonomics is all about, it comes into everything that involves people - be it work, sport or leisure activities. It is an applied science of equipment design intended to maximize production by reducing human fatigue and discomfort. The application of the science can be physical, cognitive or organizational.

  • The physical aspect deals with the human body's response to physical and physiological stress.
  • The cognitive aspect involves mental processes such as perception, attention, memory and mental workload.
  • The organizational aspect deals with the optimization of the organizational structure, policies and processes - work scheduling, team work, ethical practices, motivation and job satisfaction.

These three aspects come together to produce an ergonomically sound workplace, where people are not only more efficient but also comfortable and happy. Ergonomics complements industrial and technological advances.

In the early 19th century, scientific management methods were introduced by Frederic Winslow Taylor. He found that by reducing the size and weight of the shovel used in coal mines, a worker could shovel more coal in a given time.

In the early 1900s, Frank and Gillian Galbreth developed time motion studies to improve efficiency by eliminating unnecessary steps and actions while carrying out a given task. They applied this to brick-laying and were able to reduce the movements from 18 to 4.5 and thereby the efficiency of the worker improved considerably.

During World War II, new machines and weapons were developed which placed great demands on the people operating these devices. For example, aircraft crashes due to pilot errors were reduced by redesigning and relocating controls for ease of recognition and use.

Then came the Space Age with even more technological advances and humans had to be trained to operate all the equipment efficiently.

The advent of the Information Technology Age has resulted in H.C.I. - Human Computer Interaction.

Each of these developments has a direct bearing on humans who have to react effectively and handle the various demands the situations - whether physical, psychological or social - place on them. Ergonomics is all about taking the human factor into account when designing equipment and workplaces so that they are user-friendly.

Engineering psychology factors in psychological aspects in design and use of equipment. Systems are designed that accommodate information processing capabilities of the brain. All this information can be put to use effectively in everyday situations.

Improper use of equipment can lead to injury. Hence specific programs relating to the use of equipment are designed and training imparted to the workers.

Body posture is important in any occupation. A person has to adopt a posture that is comfortable and least stressful for the body. This is best done by self - observation and correction of the working position. Chairs and work tables should be adjusted to fit the user. Change of posture at regular intervals in sedentary jobs will help relieve neck and back muscle strain.

People using vibrating tools should wear gloves or the handles of the tools should have suitable coatings. Precautions should be taken when lifting weights. Lifting below the knee or above shoulder height causes more strain.

One has to learn to avoid using unnecessary force to carry out a task. This was first described by F.M. Alexander, an Australian singer who noticed strain on his neck muscles whilst vocalizing and by observing himself in front of a mirror learned to correct his posture.

Ultimately, it is the person who is carrying out a given task who should find the most comfortable and efficient working position by using ergonomic principles.

Article written by:

Dr. S. Umachandran
Consultant Orthopedic Surgeon
Apollo Hospitals, Chennai

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