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Course 711 - Introduction to Ergonomics

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Defining Ergonomics



Webster's New World Dictionary (College Edition) defines ergonomics as "the study of the problems of people in adjusting to their environment; especially the science that seeks to adapt work or working conditions to suit the individual worker."

Ergonomics may also be thought of as the science of fitting the job to the individual worker. When there is a mismatch between the physical requirements of the job and the physical capacity of the worker, musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) can result.

Ergonomics & Risk Factors

Ergonomics studies the various risk factors brought to a job. Listed below are three areas within which ergonomic risk factors exist.
  • Risk factors inherent in the worker
  • Risk factors inherent in the task
  • Risk factors inherent in the environment

Workers come in all shapes and sizes, each with unique attributes that present certain ergonomic risk factors to a given job. The task(s) of the job itself can present risk factors that increase the likelihood of an injury. Finally, the workplace environment, within which the worker and job exist, may also contain exposures to risk factors. We will cover each of these risk factor categories in this course.

Who is at risk?

That's a great question. Let's take a look at the factors that increase the risk of an injury. Risk for developing MSDs increases for workers who must:

  • repeat the same motion throughout their workday;
  • do their work in an awkward position;
  • use a great deal of force to perform their jobs;
  • repeatedly lift heavy objects; or
  • face a combination of these risk factors.

The level of risk depends on how long a worker is exposed to these conditions, how often they are exposed, and the level of exposure.

Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSDs)

Ergonomics and MSDs Washington State L&I

MSDs include a group of conditions that involve the nerves, tendons, muscles, and supporting structures such as intervertebral discs. They represent a wide range of disorders, which can differ in severity from mild periodic symptoms to severe chronic and debilitating conditions. Below is a list of examples.

  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Tenosynovitis
  • Tension neck syndrome
  • Low back pain

MSDs are often confused with ergonomics. Ergonomics is the science of fitting workplace conditions and job demands to the capabilities of workers. In other words, MSDs are the problem and ergonomics is a solution.

Contributing factors are aspects of work tasks that can lead to fatigue, MSD symptoms and injuries, or other types of problems. These factors may be present in one or more of the tasks employees must perform to accomplish their jobs. The contributing factors you and your employees should be aware of include:

  • Awkward postures;
  • Repetitive motions;
  • Forceful exertions;
  • Pressure points (e.g., local contact stress); and
  • Vibration.

There are also environmental factors associated with the workplace that can cause problems.

Extreme high temperatures can increase the rate at which the body will fatigue. Exposure of the hands and feet to cold temperatures can decrease blood flow, muscle strength, and manual dexterity. These conditions can also cause excessive grip force to be applied to tool handles or objects. Another problem may be caused by tools or equipment that exhaust cold or hot air directly onto the operator.

In addition, the lighting in a workplace may be too dark or too bright for the work task. This may result in employees assuming awkward postures to accomplish work tasks and a loss of product quality. We will cover these factors in more detail in upcoming modules.


Work-related MSDs (WMSD)

Occasionally, in reading safety literature, you will come across the term "work-related MSDs" (WMSDs). WMSDs are nothing more than MSDs caused or made worse by the work environment. WMSDs can cause severe and debilitating symptoms such as:

  • pain, numbness, and tingling;
  • reduced worker productivity;
  • lost time from work;
  • temporary or permanent disability;
  • inability to perform job tasks; and/or
  • an increase in workers compensation costs.

Check out this short audio clip by Dan Clark of the that gives a good introduction to WMSDs.


Impact of Ergonomics

Musculoskeletal disorders are among the most prevalent medical problems in the U.S. They accounted for more than 32% of all injury and illness cases in 2014.

Often MSDs can be prevented by simple and inexpensive changes in the workplace. Adjusting the height of working surfaces, varying tasks for workers, and encouraging short rest breaks can reduce risks. Reducing the size of items workers must lift or providing lifting equipment also may aid workers. Specially designed equipment, such as curved knives for poultry processors, may help.

Below are some more interesting statistics.

  • Four out of ten days away from work cases were sprains or strains.
  • Approximately one in five days away from work were suffered by:
    • Laborers;
    • Freight, stock, and material movers;
    • Heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers; and
    • Nursing aides, orderlies, and attendants.

Medical costs and workers' compensation claims for serious MSDs may total $15,000 to $85,000 or more. It makes sense to give serious consideration to the risk factors in your workplace and the information in this course will help you do that.

Ergonomics in the Workplace

Watch this Structured Health demo on-site ergonomic assessment to create the optimal computer and chair set-up. Alleviate pain immediately with simple do-it-yourself changes.


Before beginning this quiz, we highly recommend you review the module material. This quiz is designed to allow you to self-check your comprehension of the module content, but only focuses on key concepts and ideas.

Read each question carefully. Select the best answer, even if more than one answer seems possible. When done, click on the "Get Quiz Answers" button. If you do not answer all the questions, you will receive an error message.

Good luck!

1. Ergonomics is the science of fitting the job to a group of workers.

2. Musculoskeletal disorders can result when there is a mismatch between the physical _____ of the job and the physical _____ of the worker.

3. Workers are likely to develop MSDs when they _____.

4. Which of the following is not one of the three areas within which ergonomics risk factors exist?

5. Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) accounted for more than _____ of the injuries and illnesses in 2014.

Have a great day!

Important! You will receive an "error" message unless all questions are answered.