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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:

  • Aerospace: equipment and procedures for planes and spacecraft
  • Aging: products and equipment especially for use by seniors
  • Communications: telephones, operating systems at telephone companies
  • Computer systems: computer software, the computer itself (keyboard, mouse), copying machines
  • Consumer products: just about anything from stereos to toys
  • Environmental design: office equipment, design and structure
  • Industrial design: safety and productivity in factories or plants
  • Medical systems: the design and set-up of medical equipment
  • Surface transportation: automobiles, trains, boats, farm equipment

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.

At a Glance

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  • An accredited ergonomics program is your best bet


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