Ergonomic or Ergonomics?

By Guy Osmond on 11th Feb 2013

Am I the only English-speaking person in the sector bothered about the frequent misuse of the word “ergonomic” by people who really should know better? Before I expand this little rant, I suppose I should start by saying “Yes, I have read (and thoroughly enjoyed) “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” by Lynne Truss and I empathise with most of what’s said when I watch “Grumpy Old Men/Women”.  I am also happy to accept that I am quite pedantic about semantics.

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But I think there is a serious issue about getting the general public to understand more about ergonomics and I am sure we confuse them or delay the understanding when we are vague in our own use of language.

I am not talking here about “ergonomic slippers” or “ergonomic dog baskets” or those “ergonomic leather chairs” available for £39.95 from your local retail park stationer.  I recognise that these are situations where someone in marketing has decided that the word “ergonomic” will add gravitas or a marketing edge to the product in the same way they might use “environmental” or “locally sourced” without feeling the need to fully research, understand or justify the description.

Ergonomics, as (I hope) we all know, is the discipline of arranging the working environment to optimise the comfort and performance of the individual.  As such, it is contextual. i.e. a “thing” can’t be “ergonomic” until you put it into a situation (a context).  A chair can’t be an “ergonomic chair” until you have established who will use it, the shape and size of the individual and what their activities will be whilst sitting in it. Similarly, making a desk top some shape other than rectangular does not automatically make it “ergonomic”!

You can create an ergonomic workstation for yourself and your activities, but a workstation can’t be ergonomic on its own.  It needs you – or someone else – to occupy it and make whatever adjustments are necessary to create an ergonomic environment.

The problem is compounded by the fact that lots of products on the internet are prefixed by the word “ergonomic”.  My company also does this (because we have to). This is unavoidable because we need to optimise our web pages for search engines.  People search for an “ergonomic chair” or an “ergonomic computer mouse” so our web presence needs to be configured to be found by such searches. So we can’t take misuse off the web (for the moment!).

Let us concentrate our efforts in our spoken language, our presentations, training and workshops – and our printed literature. Let’s stop talking about “ergonomic programmes” (it’s the outcomes that are ergonomic, not the programmes), “ergonomic success stories” (it’s the implementations that are ergonomic, not the stories) or the “ergonomic climate” (no idea what that is). Conversations about ergonomics programmes and ergonomics success stories actually make sense and all they needed was the extra letter “s”!

Once we are consistent, our clients, students, prospects and the general public may start to grasp the differentiation so that we can get it right on the internet as well!

Do you agree? Am I making a fuss about nothing? Do I need to “get a life”? Please let me know what you think.

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