Ergonomic factors in the workplace

The design of workspaces and workplace equipment can have a significant effect on how employees perform in their jobs. Bearing ergonomic principles in mind when carrying out this type of design reduces risk, helps to prevent accidents and keeps employees in good health.

On this page, we look at ergonomic factors (also known as human factors) and how they apply to the working environment. We identify the types of factors found in many workplaces and what businesses can do to ensure they have no negative effect on people’s ability to work.

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What we mean by “ergonomic factors”

Ergonomics is the science of finding an ideal fit between people and the work they do. Applied to technology, it makes sure that products and devices are designed according to the user, the working environment and the task. When everything is considered together, it means people can do their jobs effectively and safely.

However, in some industries and areas of business, the terms “human factors” and “ergonomic factors” are also used. The factors in question are those that organisations need to take into account in order to ensure the best possible fit between employees and their work.

Examples of ergonomic factors

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), human factors (or ergonomic factors) generally consist of three interconnected aspects—the job, the individual and the organisation.

The job

To be thought of as ergonomic, a job (and the tasks it involves) should be designed to acknowledge the physical and mental limitations and strengths of the person doing it. This includes things such as:

  • what the role entails
  • the workload
  • how equipment is designed (size, shape, suitability for tasks etc.)
  • the working environment (temperature, humidity, lighting, noise, vibration etc.)
  • how information is used and accessed

The individual

An ergonomic approach to the individual employee means designing jobs and working equipment that will help make best use of the person’s capabilities, while at the same time protecting their health and safety and increasing the organisation’s overall productivity.

This covers aspects such as the person’s:

  • physical characteristics (body size and shape)
  • fitness, strength and posture
  • vision, hearing and touch
  • skills and competence
  • knowledge and experience
  • personality and attitude
  • training

Read more about using ergonomic factors to design workstations

The organisation

How employees behave at work can’t usually help but be influenced by the characteristics of the organisation employing them. Assessing an organisation from an ergonomic, human factors perspective means looking at how business-level considerations affect people’s behaviour and actions.

This includes aspects such as:

  • organisational culture
  • management, supervision and leadership
  • teamwork
  • working patterns and hours
  • communications
  • resources

Why ergonomic factors are important in the workplace

By taking the above factors into account, an organisation can go a long way to protecting its staff from work-related injury or ill health. At the same time, implementing ergonomic principles can also improve a business’s performance and productivity overall.

Substandard workplace ergonomics can come with a high cost. Employees whose jobs aren’t designed with ergonomic factors in mind are more vulnerable to a range of health complaints, including work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WRMSDs).

These conditions are very common, affecting nearly half a million workers in Britain each year (see the statistics here). Read more about WRMSDs on our office ergonomics page.

Ergonomic hazards found in the workplace

Understanding human factors and the associated hazards that could occur within the workplace is a vital step in creating an ergonomic organisation.

Below, we look at some ergonomic hazards common throughout many workplaces, but offices in particular.

Physical hazards

Poor or awkward posture

Having a poorly set-up workstation makes it more likely that an employee will sit with an awkward posture throughout the day.

A workstation that isn’t set up correctly is one that either makes no use of ergonomic equipment (e.g. ergonomic chairs and desks), or isn’t at all designed and adjusted with the worker’s needs in mind (e.g. a chair set to the correct height, or matched to the person’s body size and shape).

Posture isn’t solely about having a straight back, but also concerns the position of the head and neck, arms and wrists, and legs and feet. Bad posture can cause a range of musculoskeletal injuries, including:

  • pain or discomfort in the:
    • back
    • hands, fingers or wrists
    • shoulders
    • neck
  • swollen or stiff joints
  • muscle cramps or tightness

These conditions might prevent employees from doing their jobs to the best of their ability, and/or lead to them having to take time off. This itself can have an impact on the business’s productivity and finances.

Working with computers

Most office workers spend much of their day sitting in front of a computer. This can be hazardous not only because of the health problems associated with sedentary behaviour (read more about that here) but also those issues that can occur from typing, using a mouse and/or staring at a monitor or display screen for prolonged periods.

While the physical act of typing seems so simple and effortless, if not done properly (and on an ergonomic keyboard) it can, over time, cause repetitive strain injuries and similar musculoskeletal disorders. Mice should have an ergonomic design and kept within easy reach, to avoid arm strain.

The use of monitors and display screens, meanwhile, can lead to eye strain, headaches and other vision problems if human factors aren’t fully considered. Monitor arms are especially useful for ensuring the monitor is positioned at the correct height to reduce strain on the body. Unsuitable display settings (such as contrast and brightness) and glare caused by lighting are other hazards to look out for.

Environmental hazards

Unsuitable lighting

In offices, there’s a need to think about how lighting can affect the tasks employees are doing, whether it’s using a computer, reading paper documents and so on.

Different types of work require different levels of light. Unsuitable lighting can hinder performance and productivity and even be detrimental to people’s health (especially eyesight).

Room lighting might be unsuitable if the light is too low for people to read comfortably, or if it’s reflecting off monitors and display screens and causing glare.

Unsuitable room temperature

If an office is overly cold or overly hot, it can make workers feel uncomfortable, which in turn can cause them to become dissatisfied with their job and/or the organisation, and to take more time off due to sickness and stress.

As many office premises regulate room temperature from a central thermostat to which individual workers don’t have access, this needs to be given full consideration as part of any ergonomic risk assessment.

Insufficient space

Staff need the right amount of space to do their jobs, whether this is moving around their workstation or having access to certain equipment. Indeed, there are working laws that offer guidance for exactly how much space workers should have.

Space-saving devices such as cable baskets and CPU supports both reduce potential hazards and increase overall workspace around the desk area.

As with other environmental hazards, lacking sufficient space can lead employees to work less efficiently, take more time off sick, and report feeling dissatisfied with their jobs.

How businesses can identify ergonomic hazards

The law gives all businesses a duty to carry out an overall health and safety risk assessment, and considering ergonomic hazards is an important part of this. The first stage of any assessment is to identify the hazards that might put workers at risk, which is where the initial check for ergonomic factors can be made.

When conducting a risk assessment, businesses are legally required to consult their employees directly. Consulting employees allows businesses to better manage health and safety by more easily identifying workplace risks, and ensuring controls put in place to protect workers’ health and safety controls are suitable and practical.

Employees are the people best placed to provide insight into the kinds of hazards that can occur within the workplace. They know their individual roles better than most and are acutely aware of any problems that affect their ability to work.

For this reason, any consultation should involve asking each employee questions about aspects such as their:

  • working position—are they able to adopt a proper posture throughout the working day?
  • comfort—do they feel discomfort, pain or fatigue at any point while doing their job?
  • working equipment—is it suitable for the tasks at hand, easy to use and well maintained?

If employees raise concerns about elements of their role, they should be asked to propose possible solutions too. Not only will this make their jobs easier and safer to do, but including them in the process should make it more likely that they will take any changes on board.

Giving ergonomic factors the proper consideration can make a huge difference to a business’s bottom line. It reduces the risk of costly accidents and injuries occurring, cuts the amount of sick leave employees need to take, and boosts overall productivity.

Using ergonomic factors to design workstations

Ergonomic factors have a huge influence over employees’ working behaviour, health and wellbeing. When businesses make decisions with these human factors in mind, it ensures that they are meeting the needs of all their workers and keeping people safe and free of risk.

Designing workspaces and workstations means considering ergonomic principles while taking into account issues around cost, efficiency and the effectiveness of technology. Creating a workstation for a specific employee means considering that person’s:

  • body size and shape
  • posture
  • muscle strength
  • freedom of movement

The aim is to create a workstation that gives the employee the widest range of comfortable movement and allows them to maintain a proper posture.

Lacking the freedom to work properly can cause a number of health issues, particularly pain and discomfort in the muscles of the body. This is why people who work sedentary jobs and are seated for large portions of the day are advised to change their working position on a regular basis.

Employees should have enough space to perform their duties and easy access to all the areas in which they work. This means considering their physical characteristics and making sure the workspace accounts for those specific body dimensions, as well as the clothing or other equipment they wear as part of their job. Height-adjustable work surfaces (such as sit-stand desks) are ideal for creating workstations that fit the employee’s body dimensions in the best possible way.

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Office ergonomics—what it is and why it matters

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