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What is Ergonomics? - The Science of Work

Working Americans spend approximately 2,000 hours a year in the workplace. Not surprisingly, all of the hours can take a toll - on the eyes, back, hands, and neck. To address these concerns, a new field of study called "Ergonomics" gained popularity.

What is ergonomics?

Ergonomics involves arranging the environment to fit the person. The goal of ergonomics is to design the workplace to the worker by designing tasks, workstations, controls, lighting, and equipment to fit the worker's physical capabilities and limitations. Ergonomics should be considered a top priority when designing a workstation because it is intended to maximize productivity by reducing worker fatigue and discomfort.

Why is ergonomics a concern in the workplace?

Many of the technological advances (computers, production equipment, etc.) require workers to perform repetitive procedures or work in positions that put a great deal of stress on the musculoskeletal system. This stress can be caused by any number of factors including:

  • Repetitive motion
  • Excessive force
  • Mechanical stresses
  • Poor posture
  • Awkward positioning
  • Lifting
  • Vibration
  • Temperature extremes
  • Unaccustomed activity

The cost of worker injuries and illnesses caused by these ergonomic stressors is staggering. Every year about 19 million American workers are disabled by musculoskeletal injuries at a cost of about $100 billion dollars. A conservative estimate of the medical costs of treating an industrial case of carpal tunnel syndrome, a type of cumulative trauma disorder affecting the wrists and back, is about $20,000 per year.

These cost estimates do not take into consideration the costs involved with lost work time, replacement workers, and lower productivity. Additional expenses as a result of ergonomic hazards in the workplace include administrative expenses associated with filing insurance claims and recordkeeping. As the work force continues to age and medical costs continue to escalate, the cost of ergonomic hazards in the workplace will continue to rise.

Tackling ergonomics hazards at Lehigh University!

In an effort to address ergonomics issues at Lehigh, Environmental Health and Safety has developed a program entitled, "Ergonomics Guideline - VDT Use". This program is a self-assessment tool which can be used to reduce the duration, frequency, and severity of exposure to ergonomics hazards. Some of the information included in the program involved modifying your workstation by using the following guidelines:

  1. Reduce Glare From Monitor
    1. Move or shield the light source
    2. Move the monitor
    3. Apply a good quality glare filter to the monitor, preferably one made of glass or plastic instead of mesh, which tends to collect dust
    4. Warning - when correcting for glare - don't create other problems, For instance, if you move the monitor, don't place it where it will cause neck strain. The monitor should be at or slightly below eye level
  2. Viewing Distance and Document Height
    1. Place the monitor and source documents so they are about the same distance from your eyes
    2. Rest the muscles of your eyes by occasionally focusing on a distant object
  3. Position
    1. Change body position periodically throughout the day
    2. Use a document stand to reduce neck twisting or bending forward to type from a document
    3. Position keyboard directly in front of you and approximately at elbow height. This should enable you to type with straight wrists. If this is not possible, use an adjustable height keyboard tray
    4. Try to relax - take short breaks and do relaxation exercises to relieve tension
  4. Seating
    1. When selecting a chair for your work area, choose one that includes most of the following characteristics:
      1. Lumbar support
      2. Adjustable armrests
      3. Seat height adjustability
      4. Soft, rounded edges
      5. Size that fits your body type

      If your feet do not reach the floor, consider using a footrest. In addition, a small pillow can be used to relieve pressure on the lower back if an older chair is used.


Applying ergonomic principles can reduce the potential for injury while improving overall employee comfort and efficiency. Most workstations and work habits can be adjusted to comply with ergonomics.

Please call Environmental Health and Safety at X84251 if you need help analyzing a workstation in your area/department or require additional ergonomics information which may apply to your specific job.

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