Andrew Pinder, Health & Safety Laboratory, UK
- 1 Introduction
- 2 Definition
- 3 Historical background
- 4 Profession
- 5 Relationship of ergonomics to OSH
- 6 Legislative frameworks relating to OSH and ergonomics
- 7 Specific areas of application of ergonomics to OSH
- 8 Other aspects of ergonomics
- 9 Learned societies and professional bodies
- 10 Sources of information
- 11 References
- 12 Links for further reading
This article presents an overview of the relationship of Ergonomics (also known as Human Factors) to occupational safety and health (OSH). It describes briefly the historical background of Ergonomics. It describes how ergonomics can be applied to OSH and how it fits with the legislative framework for OSH in the European Union. It summarises the application areas of Ergonomics that relate to OSH and lists professional bodies in ergonomics and current sources of information.
According to the official definition of the International Ergonomics Association (IEA), ‘Ergonomics (or human factors) is the scientific discipline concerned with the understanding of the interactions among humans and other elements of a system’. The terms ‘Ergonomics’ and ‘Human Factors’ are therefore synonyms and can be used interchangeably, although some do regard them as separate (but complementary) entities. These terms also refer to ‘the profession that applies theoretical principles, data and methods to design in order to optimise human well-being and overall system performance.’ .
Four fundamental characteristics of ergonomics can be deduced from these definitions: Ergonomics
- takes a systems approach (the system includes the cultural and physical environment, the organisation and the specific task requirements);
- is design driven (an analysis results in new or redesigned approaches, recommendations, workplace and tool design);
- is an iterative, human-centred process (users are a resource for developing knowledge and testing solutions);
- focuses on performance as well as on well-being (optimising efficiency, effectiveness, health and safety and job enjoyment).
Ergonomics is a systems-oriented discipline, which can be applied to all aspects of human activity. In the context of work system, standard ISO 6385 establishes the fundamental principles of ergonomics as basic guidelines for the design of work systems. In the wider context, standard ISO 26800 presents the general ergonomics approach and specifies basic ergonomics principles and concepts applicable to the design and evaluation of tasks, jobs, products, tools, equipment, systems, organisations, services, facilities and environments. Ergonomists often work in particular economic sectors or application domains, which are not mutually exclusive and change over time .
Origins of the term ‘ergonomics’
The word ‘ergonomics ‘ was coined in 1949 by K. F. H Murrell as a combination of two Greek words, εργον (ergon), meaning ‘work ‘, and νομος (nomos) meaning ‘law’. It came to prominence in 1950 when it was used in the name of the ‘Ergonomics Research Society’ (now the Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors).
In the 19th century the same term had been coined independently in Poland by Wojciech Jastrzębowski who published Rys ergonomji czyli nauki o pracy, opartej na prawdach poczerpniętych z Nauki Przyrody (The Outline of Ergonomics, i.e. Science of Work, Based on the Truths Taken from the Natural Science) (1857).
Origin of the term ‘human factors’
The terms ‘Human Engineering’, ‘Human Factors’ and ‘Human Factors Engineering’ came into use in the USA during World War 2 in the context of the design of military equipment.
Practitioners of ergonomics, 'ergonomists', are defined as professionals who 'contribute to the planning, design, implementation, evaluation, redesign and continuous improvement of tasks, jobs, products, technologies, processes, organisations, environments and systems in order to make them compatible with the needs, abilities and limitations of people.’
The IEA has defined the core competencies, knowledge and skills of ergonomists that are used for developing curricula in ergonomics, assessment of competences, certification of professionals, etc. The IEA endorses certification bodies  that certify ergonomists based on the core competencies, e.g. the Centre for Registration of European Ergonomists (CREE  ). The CREE specifies the standard of knowledge and practical experience required for registration as a European Ergonomist.
Relationship of ergonomics to OSH
Ergonomics is a discipline that can be applied to OSH to help ensure that workplace risks are, prevented at the design stage, eliminated at a later stage, or controlled and reduced if they cannot be eliminated. It can therefore improve the safety, well-being and comfort of workers. It also has broader effects by enhancing the safety of systems of work and therefore, more broadly, of society as a whole. In the specific context of the safety of machinery the need to accommodate ergonomics principles is embodied in ISO 12100 and ISO/TR 22100-3 provides a more detailed framework for incorporating ergonomics in the design of machines to help ensure their safety.
Legislative frameworks relating to OSH and ergonomics
The most important piece of European legislation relevant to risk assessment is the ‘Framework Directive’. This Directive has been transposed into national legislation. Member States, however, have the right to introduce more stringent provisions to protect their workers.
Article 6 of the Framework Directive encourages an ergonomic approach since it requires the employer to adapt the work to the individual, particularly by alleviating monotonous work and work at a predetermined work-rate and by reducing the effect of work on health. Six individual directives      were initially made under the Framework Directive, with further individual directives being added making a total (2022) of 24 (including the Framework). The Directives on Manual Handling , Display Screen Equipment (DSE)  and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE),  which were all amongst the first six, are of particular importance to ergonomics. Amongst the first six, the directive on work equipment  and the provisions regarding thermal conditions in the directive on the requirements for the workplace  also relate to ergonomics issues. None of the further individual directives include any additional requirements relevant to ergonomics.
Specific areas of application of ergonomics to OSH
Physical ergonomics is concerned with human anatomical, anthropometric, physiological and biomechanical characteristics as they relate to physical activity. It covers topics such as working postures, manual handling operations, repetitive movements, work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WRMSDs), workplace layout, safety and health .
In addition to the physical design of the working environment, the environment itself (temperature, lighting, noise, etc.) can have a significant effect on the health, safety and performance of workers. For example, elevated temperatures can impair concentration, increasing human error and the risk of accidents, as well as creating a risk of heat-related illness. A series of ISO Standards provide help and guidance on the design and assessment of physical environments.
Anthropometry is the science of measurement of the human body. It can be applied to OSH to ensure that workers have sufficient space to perform their tasks, that they can reach necessary equipment, tools and controls, that barriers keep them out of reach of hazards, and that working postures can be optimised for the range of people using them.
This refers to the use of ergonomics to design jobs and work systems so that most of the potential workforce can perform well. The ultimate goal is to make it easy for quality work to be done easily without unnecessary risk of injury or illness because of biomechanical, physiological or psychological overload. It will therefore tend to improve the reliability of humans within a system and to reduce the risks of harmful errors occurring.
Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) can affect the body's muscles, joints, tendons, ligaments, bones and nerves.
Most work-related MSDs develop over time and are caused either by the work itself or by the employees' working environment. Work-related MSDs are in general not caused by one specific, but by multiple risk factors. These include physical work aspects such as manual handling of loads, repetitive work, working in awkward postures, prolonged sitting or standing, exposure to vibrations, as well as psychosocial (work stress) demands. They can also result from accidents, e.g. fractures and dislocations. Typically, MSDs affect the back, neck, shoulders and upper limbs; less often they affect the lower limbs.
Health problems range from discomfort, minor aches and pains, to more serious medical conditions requiring time off work and even medical treatment. In more chronic cases, treatment and recovery are often unsatisfactory - the result could be permanent disability and loss of employment.
Many problems can be prevented or greatly reduced by complying with existing safety and health law and following guidance on good practice. This includes assessing the work tasks, putting in place preventive measures, and checking that these measures stay effective .
Exercise induced fatigue has a physiological basis. It is thought to be a warning mechanism that prevents overstrain of the body or a part of the body. It can be general or systematic, or local, usually muscular in nature. It is different from mental or visual fatigue. It is important in the context of OSH because it leads to the reduction in the capacity of muscles to generate force or power output, so may make a fatigued worker less able to perform work tasks, less efficient, and more likely to make errors or suffer injury.
Cognitive ergonomics is concerned with mental processes, such as perception, memory, reasoning, and motor response, as they affect interactions among humans and other elements of a system . Cognitive ergonomics is concerned with mental processes, such as perception, memory, reasoning, and motor response, as they affect interactions among humans and other elements of a system. It focuses on how well the use of a product, system of task matches the cognitive capabilities of users. Therefore one important way that it relates to OSH is through how people process information in hazardous situations. It is also applicable to looking at the mental demands of work more generally. Human cognitive capabilities and limitations should be considered in the design of work systems. Increasing attention is being given to the cognitive work environment. Information technology and artificial intelligence continue to evolve, which has led to work intensification and increased cognitive job demands. Cognitive ergonomics is a discipline that can anticipate how the cognitive work context is evolving and how work systems can be adapted to it. Moreover, there is increasing attention to employees' cognitive health and how inclusive work design can play a supportive role in this by using principles from cognitive ergonomics. Many people may face temporary or permanent cognitive problems such as concentration or memory problems, at some stage in life. Older workers for instance may have cognitive decrements in short-term memory. Others may suffer from neurodiverse conditions such as dyslexia, autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) which causes them to respond differently to the work environment and cope with cognitive job demands. . Also, workers who are experiencing Long Covid may have problems with memory or concentration (‘brain fog’) affecting their functioning and quality of life.
A Human Machine Interface (HMI) can be defined as the part of a machine or device which allows the exchange of information between an operator/user and the machine/device. An HMI consists of three parts which are (1) controls / input devices, (2) displays or other output devices, and (3) an inner structure, often consisting of both hardware and computer software.
Deficiencies in an HMI are relevant to OSH as they can cause stress, errors and accidents. Stress can result from cognitive overload or under-load. Operating errors can result in accidents. In high-risk industries, such as nuclear, oil, or gas such errors can result in major accidents.
The increasing use of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies in workplaces creates opportunities as well as challenges for OSH. AI can impact work processes, working conditions or the work environment. Ergonomics play an essential role for supporting the human-centric design and safe operation of AI.
The two main types of human failure are errors and violations. A human error is an action or decision which was not intended or has an outcome that was unintended. A violation is a deliberate deviation from a rule or procedure. Both types of failure can have the potential to result in harm to people. Errors can be classified as
- Slips – when something is done that should not have been done;
- Lapses – when something that should be done is omitted;
- Mistakes or errors of judgement or decision-making – which may be due to applying rules badly, or having incorrect or insufficient information.
Violations include non-compliances, circumventions, shortcuts and work-arounds.
While offices are typically low risk environments, ergonomics relates to OSH in office work in the context of seating and low back pain and the need to encourage movement and avoid prolonged static postures,   use of VDU equipment, use of computer software, musculoskeletal disorders, thermal environments, psychological demands, work-related stress and visual fatigue  . Recent trends in the development of mobile computing and hand-held computing devices raise ergonomics issues because much “office work” is now taking place outside offices.
Other aspects of ergonomics
Organisational ergonomics is concerned with the optimisation of sociotechnical systems, including their organisational structures, policies, and processes . It takes into account factors ranging from the design of workstations to the scheduling of rest breaks and job rotation schedules to human resources issues such as promotion opportunities. This approach gives an overview of the OSH risks that each person in the system is exposed to.
‘Participatory ergonomics’ has been defined as ‘The involvement of people in planning and controlling a significant amount of their own work activities, with sufficient knowledge and power to influence both processes and outcomes in order to achieve desirable goals’.
Within ergonomics the consensus is that the participation of end users in the design of work equipment and workplaces will lead to better design, as these solutions are developed using the expertise and practical experience of the end users. It is also held that a participatory approach will make the solutions more acceptable to the end users and will improve relations between managers and the workers. Participatory approaches also bring benefits by raising awareness of ergonomic risks in the workplace and encouraging workers to participate in finding solutions and applying them. There are also studies that point to the positive effects in terms of effective reduction of musculoskeletal disorders, injuries or absenteeism, but due to the methodological limitations of these studies, the evidence is limited.
Gender differences in the workplace
Physical, physiological, psychological, social and cultural differences between men and women mean that ergonomists need to be aware of the influences these differences can have in the workplace. Sectors such as healthcare, education, real estate, hotels and restaurants and other service sectors, such as cleaning, have significantly more female workers than male workers. Selection policies and informal self-selection lead to many jobs and tasks within jobs being more associated with either males or females. Real or perceived differences can be associated with different employment patterns for males and females. Women have less autonomy at work, are more likely to work shifts and are paid less. Men work longer hours at workplaces, are exposed to more physical risks. Jobs, workstations or equipment associated with male employment may be unsuited to female employees, and vice versa. As men and women tend to have different domestic and caring responsibilities outside work, they may prefer different working patterns and hours of work. An understanding of gender differences and how it affects the safety and health of both men and women, needs to be integrated in OSH management and more particularly into ergonomic approaches for improving OSH. Good practice examples on how gender can be integrated in OSH policies and practices ('Gender mainstreaming') can be found in the EU-OSHA report Mainstreaming gender into occupational safety and health practice.
Work adaptions for individuals with specific needs
Council Directive 2000/78/EC establishes a general framework for equal treatment in employment and occupation and is aimed at preventing discrimination. The Directive requires employers to carry out workplace adaptions for people with disabilities. Ergonomics often has a part to play in the process of work design or making modifications to accommodate these individuals, including facilitating keeping them in work or helping them to return to work following injury or ill health.
Learned societies and professional bodies
Table 1: International federations
|The International Ergonomics Association  is the federation of ergonomics and human factors societies around the world.|
|IEA Networks are groupings of IEA federated societies, or its affiliates, formed to address specific needs. As of April 2022, these are:
- Asian Council on Ergonomics and Design (ACED) ;
- ErgoAfrica ;
- FEES; Federation of European Ergonomics Societies ;
- Federation of Brazilian, Russian, Indian, Chinese, and South African HF/E Societies (BRICSplus);
- La Unión Latinoamericana de Ergonomía (ULAERGO) ;
- Nordic Ergonomics and Human Factors Society (NES) ;
- The South East Asian Network of Ergonomics Societies (SEANES) 
Table 2: European societies
|Austria||Österreichische Arbeitsgemeinschaft Für Ergonomie |
|Belgium||Belgian Ergonomics Society (BES) |
|Croatia||Croatian Ergonomics Society |
|Czech Republic||Česká ergonomická společnost (Czech Ergonomics Society, CES) |
|France||Société d'Ergonomie de Langue Française (SELF, French Language Ergonomics Society) |
|Germany||Gesellschaft für Arbeitswissenschaft (GfA) |
|Greece||Ελληνική Εταιρεία Εργονομίας (EEE, Hellenic Ergonomics Society, HES), |
|Hungary||Magyar Ergonómiai Társaság (MET)(Hungarian Ergonomics Society )|
|Ireland||Irish Ergonomics Society |
|Italy||Società Italiana di Ergonomia (SIE) |
|Latvia||Latvijas Ergonomikas Biedrības (Latvian Ergonomics Society) |
|Netherlands||Human Factors NL |
|Nordic countries||Nordic Ergonomics and Human Factors Society (NES) |
|Poland||Polskie Towarzystwao Ergonomiczne (Polish Ergonomic Association) |
|Portugal||Associação Portuguesa De Ergonomia (APERGO)|
|Russia||Межрегиональная Общественная Организация «Эргономическая Ассоциация» (МЭА) (The Inter-Regional (Russian) Ergonomic Association (IREA)) |
|Serbia||Ergonomics Society of Serbia (ESS)|
|Slovakia||Slovenská ergonomická spoločnosť (SES) (Slovak Ergonomics Association)|
|Spain||Asociación Española de Ergonomía (AEE) |
|Switzerland||Swiss Ergonomics Association |
|Turkey||Turkish Ergonomics Society|
|Ukraine||Всеукраїнська Ергономічна Асоціація (All-Ukrainian Ergonomics Association)|
|United Kingdom||The Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors (CIEHF) .|
Sources of information
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Ergonomics / Human factors scientific journals
- Applied Ergonomics, ISSN 0003-6870 
- Behaviour and Information Technology, ISSN 0144-929X (Print), 1362-3001 (Online) 
- Ergonomics, ISSN 0014-0139 (Print), 1366-5847 (Online) 
- Ergonomics in Design, ISSN 1064-8046 
- Human Factors, ISSN 0018-7208 (Print), 1547-8181 (Online) 
- Human Factors and Ergonomics in Manufacturing & Service Industries, ISSN 1090-8471 (Print), 1520-6564 (Online) /(ISSN)1520-6564
- International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics, ISSN 0169-8141 
- Safety and Ergonomics, ISSN 1080-3548 (Print), 2376-9130 (Online) 
- Theoretical Issues in Ergonomics Science, ISSN 1463-922X (Print), 1464-536X (Online) 
OSH scientific journals
- American Journal of Industrial Medicine, ISSN 0271-3586 (Print), 1097-0274 (Online) 
- Annals of Work Exposures and Health, ISSN 0003-4878 (Print), 1475-3162 (Online) 
- Archives of Environmental and Occupational Health, ISSN 1933-8244 
- Indian Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, ISSN 0973-2284 (Print), 1998-3670 (Online) 
- Industrial Health, ISSN: 0019-8366 (Print), 1880-8026 (Online) 
- International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health, ISSN: 0340-0131 (Print), 1432-1246 (Online) 
- Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene, ISSN 1545-9624 (Print), 1545-9632 (Online) 
- Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, ISSN 1076-2752 (Print), 1536-5948 (Online) 
- Occupational and Environmental Medicine, ISSN 1351-0711 (Print), 1470-7926 (Online) 
- Occupational Medicine, ISSN 0962-7480 (Print), 1471-8405 (Online) 
- Safety Science, ISSN 0925-7535 
- Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment and Health, ISSN 0355-3140 (Print), 1795-990X (Online) 
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- Towarzystwa Ziemi Nidzickiej (2004). Biography of Wojciech Jastrzebowski [in Polish].
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- Council Directive 89/391/EEC on the introduction of measures to encourage improvements in the safety and health of workers at work. Available at: 
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- Council Directive 90/270/EEC on the minimum safety and health requirements for work with display screen equipment. Available at: 
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- Pheasant, S. & Haslegrave, C.M., Bodyspace: Anthropometry, Ergonomics and the Design of Work, 3rd edition, Taylor & Francis, London, 2006.
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- Astrand, P.O., Rodahl, K., Dahl, K. A. & Strømme, S.B., Textbook of Work Physiology, fourth edition, Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL, 2003.
- ILO. Principles and guidelines for human factors /ergonomics (HFE) design and management of work systems, 2021. Available at: 
- Kalakoski, V. Cognitive Ergonomics is a Matter of Cognitive Factors. In ReCogErg@ ECCC, 2019, pp. 46-51. Available at: 
- Glenn, C., Smofsky, A., Melles, R. Cognitive health: a hidden challenge with tremendous workplace implications. OHS Canada, February 24, 2022. Available at: 
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- Dawson, J. Creating a Fair Environment for Neurodiverse People and Realizing the Benefits. Occupational Health and Safety, 20 June 2020. Available at: 
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- EU-OSHA. Preventing musculoskeletal disorders in a diverse workforce: risk factors for women, migrants and LGBTI workers. Report, 2020. Available at: 
- EU-OSHA. New risks and trends in the safety and health of women at work. Report, 2013. Available at: 
- Habib, R.R. & Messing, K., ‘Gender, women's work and ergonomics’, Ergonomics, Vol. 55, Iss 2, 2012, pp. 129-132. Available at: 
- EI-OSHA. Mainstreaming gender into occupational safety and health practice. Report, 2014. Available at: 
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- IEA - International Ergonomics Association. Networks. 
Links for further reading
EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Practical tools and guidance on musculoskeletal disorders, Available at: 
EU Commission, Healthy workers, thriving companies - a practical guide to wellbeing at work. Guidance, 2018. Available at: 
EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Prolonged static sitting at work: health effects and good practice advice. Report, 2021. Available at: 
EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, The human-machine interface as an emerging risk. Literature review, 2009. Available at: 
EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Worker participation in the prevention of musculoskeletal risks at work. Report, 2022. Available at: 
EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Participatory ergonomics and preventing musculoskeletal disorders in the workplace. Discussion paper, 2021. Available at: 
ILO - International Labour Organisation, Ergonomic checkpoints: Practical and easy-to-implement solutions for improving safety, health and working conditions. Available at: 
ILO. Principles and guidelines for human factors /ergonomics (HFE) design and management of work systems, 2021. Available at: