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Introduction to ergonomics in the workplace

Discover why working in a comfortable, well equipped environment is better for your workers' health. This Workers' Compensation Regulator webinar presented by Michelle James and Pam Knobel, discusses what ergonomics involves, the role of an ergonomist and the benefits of applying ergonomic principles in the workplace and resources to assist you.

Michelle James, Principal Advisor Ergonomics for Workplace Health and Safety Queensland (WHSQ) has worked in the industry for 18 years. Michelle has qualifications in occupational health and safety and ergonomics. She coordinates the PErforM program which focuses on manual task risk management based on participative ergonomics, an internationally recommended approach for reducing musculoskeletal disorders.

Pam Knobel is also a Principal Advisor Ergonomics for WHSQ. Pam has been with WHSQ for 11 years and is a small business advisor. Pam has experience as a rehabilitation coordinator with several state government departments.

Watch the below video recording of the webinar, or download the presentation (PDF, 4.54 MB) . This content is protected under copyright.

Download a copy of this film (ZIP/MP4, 20MB)

An Introduction to Ergonomics in the workplace

Michelle James

Pam Knobel

Steven Campbell:

Hello and welcome to today's webinar titled 'An introduction to Ergonomics in the workplace.' My name is Steven Campbell and I will be your facilitator for today. Next to me is Pam Knobel and Michelle James both principal advisors in ergonomics and our expert presenters for today.

Michelle James is a Principal Advisor Ergonomics. Michelle has worked for Workplace Health and Safety Queensland for the past 18 years as an Ergonomics Inspector and has qualifications in Occupational Health and Safety and Ergonomics. She also coordinates the Workplace Health and Safety PErforM program which means the Participative Ergonomics for Manual Tasks program.

Pam Knobel is also a Principal Advisor Ergonomics within Workplace Health and Safety Queensland and has worked in the Department for 11 years including time as a Small Business Advisor. She has qualifications in Occupational Health and Safety as well as Ergonomics. Pam has also worked as a Rehabilitation Coordinator with several state government departments and is currently working within the Transport portfolio.

Today Michelle and Pam will discuss what ergonomics is and what Ergonomists are, the benefits of applying these principles in the workplace and they'll cover resources which can assist you.

Welcome to the Ergonomics Unit from Workplace Health and Safety Queensland.

Michelle James:

Thanks Steven. Hi. I'm Michelle. Well welcome and thank you for taking the time to listen to our webinar. Pam and I have become quite aware through our work with employers and also from feedback from the Workers' Comp regulator that there is a need to clarify and explain some of the terms and fundamental principles in ergonomics. Quite a lot of information for example the online resources and webinars are pitched at a more intermediate level and may use terms that many people are not familiar with.

For example when I've been delivering a workshop I'm often asked the question "What is ergonomics?" Pam have you had that experience?

Pam Knobel:

Yes Michelle I have. In my day-to-day work people often ask me what ergonomics is.

Michelle James:

Pam and I have pulled together a lot of the information out there including published work to give you an evidence-based overview of what ergonomics is. I guess our goal today is to give you an awareness of basic ergonomics, how it fits in with health and safety management and also how ergonomics might benefit your workplace. And we'll also highlight some of the Workplace Health and Safety Queensland resources that are on our website that can assist you and your workplace.

Pam Knobel:

Now we're going to talk about some definitions associated with ergonomics. We see the term 'ergonomics' just about everywhere from chairs to phones to knife handles. There it is 'ergonomic' on the label. But what does it really mean and more importantly what does it mean for your workplace? If you buy a chair that's labelled 'ergonomic' does this mean your office workers won't have any work-related injuries? Does it mean that your organisation is complying with the Work Health and Safety legislation? Well the short answer is not necessarily if this is all that you are doing.

The term 'ergonomics' is just a word that can be put onto the labels and it doesn't necessarily indicate that a certain standard or criteria has been met. There are professional associations however and the picture on the slide has been taken from the International Ergonomics Association which is the Federation of Ergonomics and Human Factor societies around the world. This includes the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society of Australia. Getting back to the picture this is a good visual representation of what ergonomics is.

The word 'ergonomics' comes from Ancient Greek and basically means rules or study of work. Ergonomics today is the science of designing and evaluating systems, products and environments to be efficient, safe and satisfying for users. So it involves being aware of the user's limitations and also knowing how to make the best of their capabilities. Ergonomics is also known as human factors.

In a workplace setting ergonomics is simply the science of designing the job to fit the worker not forcing the worker to fit the job. So many people think ergonomics just relates to office environments however it is much broader than that and can be applied across all workplaces. Ergonomics is beneficial to your workplace because it optimises human wellbeing and overall system performance. Ergonomics promotes a holistic approach in which considerations of physical, cognitive, social, organisational, environmental and other relevant factors are taken into account.

Now Michelle is going to talk about the key areas of ergonomics.

Michelle James:

Okay. So we're just going to have a look at three of the key areas that Pam mentioned just to illustrate the breadth of these different areas of ergonomics. We'll look at physical, cognitive and organisational ergonomics and discuss some examples as we go.

Ergonomics is concerned with things like posture, forces acting on the body and environmental factors such as light, temperature and vibration. We can see in a couple of pictures we'll have on the screen. If we look at the left picture the worker there is using quite a significant amount of force and also is in a awkward posture there to operate the jackhammer. So the design of the jackhammer and features such as its weight, the handle shape and efficiency are all things that impact on the physical factors for this worker. Also look how uneven the ground is. This could also be contributing to the physical factors for this worker such as increasing the force required for stabilising himself.

The photo on the right is a good example of how the environment people are working in can further impact on the physical factors. It shows a worker using a hand saw working overhead in a very cramped space and this results in the awkward postures that we can see.

So cognitive ergonomics is concerned with things like mental processes such as perception, human computer interaction, mental workload and decision making. So for example when applying this area of ergonomics in your workplace some questions one might consider are how is information presented by a system to the user? How could this information be perceived and interpreted? What decisions is the user required to make and what about feedback? How does the user communicate their response to the system and how does the system then provide feedback to the user?

If numerous events occur at the same time a worker might have trouble processing a lot of information at once and critical information might be missed while the correct information might not be able to be retrieved from the long-term memory. Or you may even have incorrect information being retrieved. All this is going to increase the mental workload and stress of the worker. There is a range of cognitive issues in many operators' jobs that can lead to reduced performance or attention to critical function. For example in driving buses the welfare and safety of passengers is usually a big consideration for the driver but can also be the source of distractions and interruptions. School buses have the additional demands of children who are prone to unpredictable behaviour either within or outside the bus.

So just looking at a couple of illustrations from cognitive ergonomics. The photo on the left shows the workplace scenario where cognitive ergonomics is an issue. You can see this worker's in front of a monitor and is also monitoring items as they pass by on a conveyor belt and there is another monitor behind the conveyor across from the worker. Now this might be hard to see but the worker is also required to operate some hand controls. So certainly we have a complex system here with lots of information from different sources being presented and processed here and on top of that decision making is required. So this does result in a higher mental workload.

A good example of where cognitive ergonomics is of critical importance is in an aircraft control tower. Here you have users needing to make critical decisions based on constantly changing data in the context of a busy and high pressure environment. The accuracy and speed of their information – the way they process that information and act on that information is impacted on by the design and the features of the interface that the operators are using. The consequences of user error in this scenario could be catastrophic. So the designers of these systems and interfaces really need to have an understanding of the limitations of their users and good design criteria as well as the environment in which they're going to be used.

So the last key area we're just going to have a quick look at is organisational ergonomics. Now organisational ergonomics is concerned with things like communication, teamwork, shift work, work design and fatigue. And Pam do you have an example you could talk about here?

Pam Knobel:

I do. From my experience with the Transport industry truck drivers have a range of organisational ergonomic issues in their day-to-day work. For example drivers often work within tight timeframes to deliver goods to their customers. This can be impacted on by road conditions including traffic congestion or roadwork. In relation to the design of their work they often don't have control over their schedules or the flexibility to decide when they take their breaks. Truck drivers also frequently undertake shift work and fatigue may be an issue. Because truck drivers often work on their own it can be difficult for them to participate in decision making and team communication.

Michelle James:

Okay. So we're just going to bring up a video now on the screen and this is an example that further demonstrates some of these different aspects of ergonomics and how they negatively impact on the worker. There's no audio for this video. You should just be able to see a worker and he is scaling a fish in a cold room. So this really illustrates some of the issues under physical ergonomics. The physical factors we are interested in from an ergonomics point of view are things like the force the worker is using, the postures the worker is in, the tool that the worker is using and the cold environment that he is working in.

Now cognitive issues aren't the major issue associated with this task however there are a couple of things here that come under cognitive ergonomics that we could consider. For example just think about how monotonous this job would be if the worker just performed only this task for his entire 10 hour shift. This is going to impact on the worker's job satisfaction, stress levels, vigilance and fatigue.

So we can also see in this video how organisational ergonomics can impact negatively on workers. For example if I told you this worker is required to scale 200 fish each shift do you think that might be contributing to how fast he chooses to work? Certainly it would. The length of this worker's shift and available break times are also other organisational ergonomic factors that impact on the risk for this worker.

So that's a quick overview of what ergonomics is about. I'll hand over back to Pam who's going to talk about people who work in the area of ergonomics.

Pam Knobel:

Thanks Michelle. Given that ergonomics is so broad it makes sense that people working in this field would come from a diverse range of backgrounds. People working in the field usually have qualifications in ergonomics or related fields but their backgrounds may include psychology, occupational therapy, physiotherapy, occupational health and safety or industrial design and you can see from the slide how diverse the backgrounds are. People working in this field contribute to the design and evaluation of tasks, jobs, products, environments and entire systems in order to make them compatible with the needs, abilities and limitations of people. For example in the video we just looked at they would be interested in the design of the work, how it impacts on the workers and how it can be improved to fit the worker.

A skilled professional in this field brings a broad and often multidisciplinary perspective to a problem. They could have a variety of roles or functions. For example, they might be engaged to facilitate the change process around an ergonomics program or they may be involved to provide assessment and guidance on a particular task. Just like many specialists they will have a particular industry type that hey specialised in such as transport, manufacturing or health as well as the key areas within ergonomics which are physical, cognitive and organisational. So people working in ergonomics could potentially come from all of those professions listed on the screen as well as a variety of others.

The International Ergonomics Association defines an Ergonomist as an individual whose knowledge and skills concerns the analysis of human system interaction and the design of the system in order to optimise human wellbeing and overall system performance. An IEA or recognised certified Ergonomist is a professional Ergonomist whose practice and training have met the quality criteria set by the IEA or endorsed certifying body.

The HFESA is the professional body in Australia which is responsible for the accreditation of certified professional ergonomists also knows as CPEs. You can search their website which is listed on the slide to find the CPE including those who are health and safety specialists. There are also competency based standards for ergonomists on this website. There is a vast array of tools and techniques available for ergonomists and workplaces to use. The tools cover the variety of different areas within ergonomics and can include surveys, checklists and qualitative or quantitative assessment methods. It's important to match the needs and capacity of your workplace with the consultant's background, skills and approach to ensure that they can effectively meet the specific needs of your workplace.

So there's a couple of questions on the slide coming up and they're just to get you thinking about the concept of participative ergonomics.

So PE is a widely used term with no universally agreed definition. PE can refer to an approach or strategy, a program or even a set of tools and techniques. Generally though PE is a way to problem solving most often for prevention of sprain and strain injuries.

Participative ergonomics is the work of active involvement in implementing ergonomic knowledge and procedures in their workplace. It generally involves an approach where you have workplace teams with representation from multiple stakeholders usually from within the organisation but sometimes externally and for example workers, management and engineers. These team members are recruited, trained in ergonomics. They then perform observations and analysis and suggest solutions. Their proposed solutions are then presented to the employer for review and approval. This process can be done with success in many different ways and obviously there could be many different activities involved in a process like this. The content and depth of training varies. The method of assessing tasks there is too and different assessment tools may be used.

Regardless of the approach though the key issue is that the workers are involved in the process. Involving the workers brings the following benefits. Employees have unique expert job knowledge, so they will know first hand what the issues are and also what controls will more likely be a good fit or suitable to the needs of the job. Secondly, involving workers in the change process generates feelings of ownership and greater commitment to the changes. Lastly involving the workers can provide psychosocial benefits. Basically the workforce feels positive about having their views sought and taken seriously.

An example of participative ergonomics approach the WHSQ has resources for is the PErforM program and Michelle will discuss how to access these later in the session.

Ergonomics can certainly be applied across all three stages of injury prevention. Primary prevention is the key area where ergonomics programs can be implemented. Primary prevention is also the key focus of the Work Health and Safety Act and regulations. The risk management process in the legislation is an ongoing process for controlling risk. The legislation requires you to be proactive. So this means an injury doesn't need to occur before starting this process. Risk management involves identifying and assessing hazards, implementing controls and reviewing their effectiveness. This approach adapts easily to ergonomics.

Of course in the secondary and tertiary stages of prevention including early intervention a lot of benefit can be gained in managing ergonomic hazards. If the aim of secondary prevention is to reduce progression of disease then ergonomic principles apply very well here. In our experience it is in this stage where we find that ergonomic principles can be overlooked. Some early intervention programs may focus only on the rehabilitation of the injured worker which is certainly important but it is also important to address the issues that contributed to the injury in the first place.

While the discomfort or injury may be the impetus for intervention at this stage effective application of ergonomic principles may involve considering redesign for example of the task, layout or tools to address the source of risk rather than just providing the injured worker with stretches or a specific job technique to follow. For example injured workers returning to work shouldn't be exposed to the risk that contributed to their injury nor should other workers be exposed to these risks. Ergonomic strategies need to be implemented to achieve a sustainable reduction in risk.

An example that I can share from early on in my career as a Return to Work Coordinator our workplace had an injured worker who returned to work after a sprain/strain type injury on a suitable duties plan. Initially we addressed the physical ergonomic issues associated with the worker's work station. However we noticed that the plan wasn't progressing overly effectively. We had a discussion with the worker and they identified some organisational ergonomics issues including communication especially with their supervisor and teamwork and also a cognitive ergonomics issue relating to mental workload associated with the job. Once we addressed all of these issues we saw a greater improvement in the progress of the suitable duties plan.

These issues were also improvement for other workers in the team as well. Research suggests that typically sprain and strain injury prevention is addressed through standalone ergonomic programs. However the literature findings are and it's been our observation that benefits and sustainability are more likely when sprain and strain injury prevention is integrated into the organisation or health and safety system. Opportunities where you can include ergonomics in your safety management system includes allocating budgets to implement solutions, developing ergonomic criteria to consider when purchasing new equipment, when developing safe work procedures or risk assessments and including ergonomic criteria in audits, incident investigation and risk registers.

There are a range of approaches that workplaces might take to manage ergonomic hazards and all of these fall within the legislation as long as the risk management approach is followed and consultation with workers occurs. Some common approaches include management and health and safety staff identifying, assessing and developing control, bringing in a consultant who has an ergonomic specialty to assist in your workplace, using workers' job knowledge or a combination of these approaches. There is no one set method which fits all workplaces or problems. However it's important that the approach you choose is based on risk management, involves consultation with your workers and suits the needs of your workplace.

Sometimes it may seem as though control options are fairly limited. In our experience with workplaces it is often the case that at the outset it may seem as though there are no obvious controls. It may be difficult to know where to start. However the Work Health and Safety legislation requires you follow the hierarchy of control. This is a process that lists out the most effective options through to the least effective control options for workplace risks. The most preferred control option is elimination for example automating the process followed by substitution such as changing to air suspension seats in trucks.

The next level is isolating the hazard and then engineering controls such as mechanical lifting aids. These are preferred control options as they reduce the level of risk. The next two levels of controls rely on the worker's behaviour and only reduce exposure to the hazard rather than changing the risk factors. The next level are administrative controls which include job rotation. The least effective level of control is personal protective equipment.

It's helpful to remember that arriving at controls is like undertaking a journey with the control being the destination and it does involve a process to get there. This may include undertaking research, brainstorming and trialling ideas, finding out what similar organisations or industries are doing about the issue, talking with suppliers or manufacturers or even obtaining advice from experts. Sometimes a problem isn't solved with one solution but rather a range of control measures might be needed. Even making small changes across the workplace can result in a significant reduction in overall risk for workers.

Now Michelle's going to talk about some of the benefits of ergonomics.

Michelle James:

So while there is indeed a legislative requirement to address ergonomic hazards we also wanted to talk about the benefits of ergonomics for business. Certainly there is much evidence both research based and anecdotal that attest to the many benefits of ergonomics. Ergonomics has become an important bottom-line opportunity that affects all competitive businesses and this is because we've seen that applying ergonomic principles to workplaces has benefits regarding cost saving, productivity, product quality and improved safety culture.

A number of studies including a large review of 250 ergonomic interventions completed by the Washing State Department of Labor have found evidence that ergonomic interventions can provide productivity benefit. Other research in this field has demonstrated a wide range of benefits including decreased rate and consequence of injuries in the workplace. So by applying ergonomic principles workplaces can reduce the ergonomics risk factors and reduce the likelihood of injuries occurring or progressing. This is a way organisations can influence their workers' compensation premium. Since on average over half of workers' compensation costs are related to ergonomic issues this represents an opportunity for significant cost saving. And also don't forget the indirect costs associated with an injury such as retraining replacement staff and loss of productivity that can also add up.

Other researchers have found strong evidence that ergonomic interventions in manufacturing and warehousing are worth undertaking financially because they contribute to reduced frequency or severity of injuries which ultimately results in savings or productivity improvement, or both. And other benefits to businesses are around enhanced team communication and job control influence.

Now just to highlight for you a local example of an organisation that has experienced many of these benefits from implementing an ergonomics program I'll briefly share a story from a local council. A branch area of this council with over 500 workers implemented a participative ergonomics program within a risk management framework. Now their aim was to better manage their manual tasks and reduce their sprain and strain injuries. So how did they do this?

Well the safety area put out a survey to the workers asking the workers to nominate their top high risk tasks. They also reviewed their workers' compensation claims data to help identify any problem tasks. They had a good response rate to the survey, in fact over 70% responses and ended up with a list of tasks to work with. So the safety area then set about assessing these tasks with the involvement of their workers and then using teams of workers they developed ideas on solutions and controls for these tasks. Management were supportive in a number of ways for example by allowing the workers to have time for ergonomics training and time to have input into the process. Also management were supportive in providing the resources that were required for implementation of various controls.

Well what were the results? Well two years on council report a 60% reduction in workers' compensation claims. As the injuries have reduced so significantly this intervention is now being rolled out across other branches of council.

So I'm just going to show you a couple of examples of some of the really simple solutions that came out of this process. One of the tasks identified by the workers was opening the side gate of a truck and this had the problem of high force because of the weight of the side gate. So this was opened over 25 times per shift to access the toolbox. So the worker suggested splitting the side gate and hinging it separately as you can see in the pictures there. So this reduced the size and the weight of the component that was opened and so that's going to reduce the force.

Another control that I would like to talk to you about involved a slightly different approach but again it's illustrating the ergonomic principles applied by council. So it's this example on the slide of the replacement of the town bin. The top two bins pictures on the slide were used across the city and were required to be manually lifted, carried and emptied. By replacing the bins with a larger capacity bin that is wheeled and mechanically lifted for emptying they reduced the force associated with this task. As a result lost time shifts in this area were reduced from 184 in 2012 down to six in 2013. So these are great examples of an ergonomics intervention because they have looked at redesigning the tasks or equipment used to better fit the workers and you can see that they've been able to come up with some really simple and cost effective solutions.

For other examples of local organisations that have experienced benefits around ergonomics please go to our website and have a look at a couple of short films that are up on the website. They are experiences of Capral Aluminium and Greyhound.

So the last part of this webinar that I wanted to go through with you was to actually show you some of the resources that we have on our website. So if you're anything like me you're a visual learner and it's a lot easier if someone can actually walk you through the information.

So just for your reference we're going to show the website address up on the slide.

Okay and we've just brought up the Work Safe website on the screen there. So this is our home page that you would land on if you would go to So from here I'm just going to show you a couple of tabs and how to access some of our key information on ergonomics.

So just to let you know if you did a search on our website for 'ergonomics' only a couple of documents would come up and you can see there. So I just want to highlight there's an ergonomics guide to computer based work and there's also a couple of PErforM references that would come up. Now the reason for this is our website is really focused – the ergonomics information is really focused on hazardous manual tasks and there's a couple of reasons for that. If you look at the injury stats and the data the biggest cause of sprain and strain injuries is hazardous manual tasks. And so we have an aim at WHSQ of trying to reduce those sprain and strain injuries. So it certainly makes sense for us to focus on the biggest cause there.

Now we also have specific legislation around hazardous manual tasks. We have the Hazardous Manual Tasks Regulation and the Hazardous Manual Tasks Code of Practice. And there are other codes of practice as well that overlap with the area of ergonomics for example plant and workplace facilities. Now I'm just going to show you how to find the legislation. So if you go to the tab for 'Laws & compliance' and just click on 'Workplace health and safety laws' and if we just scroll down you can see that we can click on 'Laws and legislation'. And I won't go into that but that's how you access the Work Health and Safety legislation.

Now back on the tab you can see that there's a heading for 'Codes of practice' and this is where you can find a list of all of our codes of practice including the Code of Practice for Hazardous Manual Tasks there under 'H'. Now the key information that I want to share with you – probably the most important thing for you to remember if you land on our website is to click on this 'Injury prevention & safety' tab and that's where a lot of our resources for businesses is kept. So you can have a look here and you can see if you scroll down as I said there won't be an ergonomic heading but you'll see two headings there that are relevant for us today – 'Workplace hazards' and 'Hazardous manual tasks' underneath that.

So let's have a look at 'Workplace hazards' and there's just a couple of interesting things here I wanted to point out. So there's a few headings down there as we look down and I just want to point out we have fatigue information, we have information on slips, trips and falls and work-related stress. Now going back over let's have a look under 'Hazardous manual tasks'. So that's the next heading under 'Workplace hazards'. And we have a range of resources under this area.

So some of the documents that are my favourite that I like to refer industry to are this 'Musculoskeletal disorders FAQs' document and you can see that this document answers a lot of really commonly asked questions such as "What are hazardous manual tasks?" It raises the issue of work assisting weights in gyms compared to lifting heavy loads at work. We also have our Participative Ergonomics suite of resources. So these are listed here and under this section if we scroll down to the resources we have a handbook there, we have PowerPoint templates and some case studies all ready if somebody wants to implement a Participative Ergonomics program. Now you'll also find industry specific information if you scroll right down to the bottom of the page.

So I'll just wrap up the content now. Just in summary the key area of – sorry the area of ergonomics is very broad with a lot of different areas as we discussed. And so the people who work in this area can come for a variety of backgrounds. Probably the main thing we'd love you to take away from this session is that it is important to address ergonomic issues across all stages of injury prevention and management. This will make your workplace environment safer for all workers including injured workers returning to work. We've also discussed how you can integrate ergonomic principles into safety management systems and the importance of using a risk management approach. And don't forget all our resources on the website.

So overall the application of ergonomic principles can bring many benefits to business including healthier, more productive workplaces. I'm going to hand over to the Facilitator for today Steven. Thank you.

Steven Campbell:

Thank you very much for that presentation Michelle and Pam. On behalf of the Workers' Compensation Regulator thanks for being part of the webinar initiative and Michelle's gone through the resources available specifically for the ergonomic issues on the website. And once again here are the – there are many resources available to assist you in your roles.

Attached to this recording will be Michelle and Pam's reference list so you can explore the research that they've quoted also.

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