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What Is Ergonomics?

By Marvin Dainoff
Posted: 09/27/2023
Tags: health, ergonomics

What does it mean when an office chair or a keyboard is called “ergonomic”? Ergonomics refers to the “fit” between people and the things that they use. Those “things” include all modern technology. Thus, ergonomics goes way beyond furniture. When you hear terms like “usability,” “user-friendly,” and “user experience,” the underlying principles are based on the study of ergonomics. 

My goal is to explain these principles so that each of you can use them in your daily life.

What does “fit” actually mean? One way of looking at fit is in terms of the principle of least effort. If you are working at your computer, fit means trying to find your comfort zone so as to get your task done with the least effort. Finding your comfort zone, in turn, means trying to get into what is technically called “neutral posture.” Each of the joints of your body (wrist, elbow, knee, hip, shoulder, neck) has a range of motion. Neutral posture occurs when your body is at the middle of the range of motion of each joint. 

Thus, the starting point for your comfort zone is sitting with feet flat, legs vertical, thighs horizontal, back upright, head upright (not tilted), arms horizontal, and wrists flat.  To get to this posture, you need to have “things” in the environment (such as adjustable furniture) and know how to adjust them and why.

This is only the starting place. We also need to consider the task itself. Can you see the text on the computer screen clearly?  What about documents you might be working on? Where are they located? Can you read them clearly? And so on. (The “so on” can also include the layout of the apps on your screen.)    

There is a really important principle here. Each individual is different. An ergonomic “expert” cannot prescribe for you an “ergonomically correct” working posture. Each person has to solve this problem for themselves; letting their own body tell them what is comfortable. An ergonomist can only provide advice.

For example, I might help you find the adjustment controls on your chair. What happens when you move the chair a certain way? Does it get you closer to your comfort zone? I might also ask what kind of glasses or contact lenses you have. Where do you have to hold your head to read the screen clearly? Are your wrists bent while typing? Is there a way to adjust the height of the keyboard?

In the real world, this process will rarely be completely successful. There will almost always have to be compromise depending on what “things” you have available to support your posture. However, the outcome will usually be an improvement.

My goal is to empower you. I want to give you some simple analytic tools to allow you to solve your own ergonomics issues. I will be giving a Village presentation in November in which I will describe these tools in more detail. Meanwhile, I am a member of the Village IT Support Team, and you can contact me for specific requests by going to our Member Directory.

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