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Ergonomics and public health 

Ergonomics and public health
Ergonomics and public health

Laura Punnett

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date: 26 January 2022

Ergonomics is the application of scientific knowledge about human physical and psychological capacities and limitations to the design of products, systems, and environments for comfort, safety, and ease of use. Ergonomic principles can—and should—be applied to the workplace, transportation vehicles and throughways, consumer products, and complex systems ranging from healthcare delivery to nuclear power plants to international aviation. Tools and other items for use at work and at home should be designed to fit the full range of the population in body size, strength, and aerobic capacity. Task and system design should further take account of human requirements in sensory perception (vision, hearing, and touch), cognition and memory, and psychosocial environment. All human characteristics display variability from person to person that is only partly explained by gender, age, ethnicity, and training or experience.

Occupational ergonomics receives special attention in many countries because of the risk of musculoskeletal disorders, such as back pain and tendonitis, associated with job demands such as heavy lifting, repetitive motions, and vibration exposure. Work stations, equipment (operating controls and display devices), and tools can accommodate the human body so that they are easy to use without error, fatigue, or injury. Jobs that permit variations in motion patterns and work routines, offer sufficient rest and recovery, encourage learning and using new skills, and facilitate rather than impede positive interactions among co-workers will promote both physical and mental health. The physical environment should be optimized in terms of temperature, lighting, and background noise to achieve workplace safety, optimized physiological endurance, and mental concentration. Work schedules other than a standard 40-h, 5-day work week are increasingly common in the global 24/7 economy. The health consequences include sleep disruption, digestive disorders, loss of mental concentration and risk of injury, and elevated risk of obesity and heart disease. Flexibility in selecting one’s own work schedule mitigates some of these hazards, but overtime work is often not voluntary and economic competition pressures many professionals to maintain electronic communication with the workplace even during supposed leisure time. In fact, productivity suffers when individuals do not have sufficient recovery time; more broadly, the application of ergonomics principles to the workplace often—but not always—improves efficiency and reduces costs, both directly and as a result of improved employee health. Developing countries tend to have fewer resources for occupational health and safety in general, including for risk analysis, standard-setting, and enforcement. However, ergonomics measures are not always expensive and can promote both worker protection and enhanced productivity and sustainability of the national enterprise.

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