Work Science / Ergonomics – What Is It?

The term ergonomics is a combination of two Greek words: "Ergon" and "Nomos" (law, science). That is, a science that deals with "work" got its name from the former unit of work (1 Erg = 1 dyn x cm). According to an old, yet still applicable, definition, "work" in work science – different from the definition in physics – means the "fulfillment of a task in a work system through the interaction of the human being and the working equipment with the work object." Basically, work always takes place in a control loop in which the human being acts as the controller. A visualization of the control loop "work" clarifies what needs to be addressed systematically in research and teaching of work science.

Visualization of the Micro-Ergonomic Tasks of Work Science:
The Adaption of Technologically Feasible System Elements in the Working World
to the Human Factors in the Control Cycle "Work"

From a systems-ergonomic perspective, the goal must always be the optimization of the interaction between a human being and a machine or a human being and a computer, respectively. For optimal results, the physical limits of the human body must be observed. The technical-organizational elements must be designed to make them compatible with human capabilities. Just like in purely technical systems, compatibility between the respective system elements is necessary. Furthermore, undesirable effects and repercussions of work on humans (such as premature fatigue and loss of motivation, work-related illnesses or even occupational diseases) can only be avoided if work systems are not only technology-oriented, but also have a social component. Work science as an interdisciplinary field – always aware of the human being as a unit with its physiological characteristics, psychological, and social needs – must take well-established consolidated work-scientific knowledge into consideration rather than personal views and opinions in the design of work.

The work system's output with respect to quality and quantity, with an acceptable error rate, must be consistent with expectations. Additionally, however, human needs must not be ignored given the bilateral goal. Strain on the human body must be within acceptable limits. Because real-life designs require compromises, background knowledge of the priority of sometimes opposing goals and of the "why" and "how" of certain measures is a necessity.

Consequently, an intuitive feel for the required analysis methods and the capability to assess the working conditions in a manner that is adequate for the problem at hand are necessary as well. This applies to workplaces with work tools, work courses, and work contents as well as physical working environment conditions. Only then is effective work design possible, just like the successful treatment of an illness requires a previous correct diagnosis. Similarly, product ergonomics, i.e., the user-friendly design of products, must follow a systematic approach.

The tasks and goals of Ergonomics as a somewhat more graphic expression for the rather neutral "work science" can be divided into "product ergonomics" and "production ergonomics." This division refers to the user-friendly design of products (e.g., automobiles) on the one hand and the design of humane working conditions during the production process (e.g., in the automobile industry) on the other hand. Technical feasibility, aesthetics, and a pleasant design should not be the only criteria for the evaluation of both products and production conditions. Products which are used by human beings – machines, devices, appliances, or tools in the workplace, but also everyday items at home – must be analyzed systematically. They must be assessed based on the goals of maximum functionality and their compatibility with human characteristics. If products and tools do not conform to this latter goal or if their use leads to fatigue or even damage to human organs and safety hazards, suggestions for their optimization must be developed.

The goals are preventative work safety in order to avoid occupational diseases and to enhance product safety along with maximum benefit to the user. This requires analysis, assessment, and design of workplaces with working equipment, work courses, and work contents, i.e., the work organization and the physical working environmental conditions.

The design of workplaces and working equipment must ultimately be based on the human body. It must be prevented that work division leads to humans who –– as stopgaps of technology – must obey the strict pace of short-cycled machines as technology's "slaves" or "circus monkeys." Lighting and color

schemes in the workplace and displays, i.e. information providing work tools must be designed to allow the eye – as the primary sensory organ – to process the wealth of information. Climate and work must be coordinated with each other so that the human body as a chemo-dynamic "power plant" with substantial heat production (from the burning of energy in the form of food in the presence of oxygen) does not overheat. At the same time, the body must not lose too much heat during work in a cold environment. Both effects would be detrimental to the body's "output." Acoustic stress from noise at the workplace, but also from music, must be limited, so that affected persons do not lose their hearing for good and in order to avoid annoyance and detrimental effects on acoustic communication. Ultimately, ergonomics is about the holistic design of work and technology. The harmonization of humane aspects cannot remain a purely theoretically notion, secondary to economic aspects, since an inhumane workplace is not economically efficient in the long run.

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