Ergonomic or Ergonomics?

annoyedXXXSmallAm 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.

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.

16 Responses to Ergonomic or Ergonomics?

  1. […] a difference in using the term ergonomic vs ergonomics?  I have just read a colleague’s blog post from the UK and I have to say it was spot on with how I see the world and I found myself say […]

    • Guy Osmond says:

      Thanks for the endorsement, Darren! I should mention that I am not an ergonomist (nor have I ever claimed to be one) but I have worked with and around ergonomists and the world of workplace ergonomics for over 20 years. I have just returned from the (UK) Institute of Ergonomics & Human Factors annual conference and it is satisfying to see how much good work is being done by proper ergonomists and, at the same time, frustrating to realise how often and how thoughtlessly, products, services – and people! – are labelled as “ergonomic”. Ergonomic consultants are everywhere! (Apart from you and I, how many people will actually understand the potential paradox in that last sentence?)

  2. Lorna Taylor says:

    Oh Guy, your article has made my moring! A really good, fun way of explaining important issues. I have nearly finished putting together a postcard on “ergonomics” for school/children (parents and schools) in an attempt to highlight that the increasing use of pupils using iPads on flat low tables in NOT progress from a back health point of view….Woudl be good to catch up soon.

  3. Joan Downing says:

    The term used in seating used to be “bells and whistles” which annoyed me even more than ergonomic. Glad that is gone but ergonomic is often overused. Agree with your comments.

  4. Preaching to the choir, Guy. I’m often delighted to be asked to provide an “ergonomic report”. As a stakeholder in that process, I can assure the client that the report will be eminently suitable for me: brief, pithy, full of efficiently regurgitated stuff that I needn’t bother researching. Fit for me. Ergonomic, one might say. Turns out what they want is a report about the ergonomics issues of something that vexes them. Who knew! And I fully understand why you need to flag equipment as ergonomic to catch a google or two. I think your balanced view (wherever we talk about the discipline, lets call it ergonomics) is spot on. And for the record, you probably are a grumpy old man, but I think you rather relish the role.

  5. Hi Guy,

    Great post and you are spot on! This has spawned a new blog post that I am presently drafting and I will be sure to link to yours as a source of the inspiration!

    Chat soon,

    Darren

  6. Dave O'Neill says:

    Keep it going, Guy. I’m with you on this. “Ergonomic” is an adjective whereas “ergonomics”, being a noun, may also be used adjectivally. And, of course, it’s much easier to spot what is not “ergonomic” than what is – that has to be context-related.

  7. Pete Purslow says:

    ‘Ergonomic’ products are generally perceived to improve the interface between workplace and worker, making it more comfortable and less likely to injure the worker. Does this mean that the ‘ergonomic’ beds that I have recently seen advertised are aimed at members of the oldest profession.
    Keep on ranting Guy

    regards

    Pete Purslow

  8. John Ridd says:

    I don’t think you are making a fuss about nothing, but you may earn yourself the name ‘King Canute’ for trying. This is a debate that flares up from time to time (usually in 5-10 yearly cycles) when it irritates the more irascible amongst us sufficiently to warrant an attempt to make a stand. I first remember this argument bridging several editions of the ‘Ergonomist’ back in the ’70s when an erstwhile friend of mine (and English pedant of similar Lynne Truss mind), took up the cudgels and berated the less rigorous amongst us.

    Did it have any effect? Well, at least that debate modified my cognitive environment such as to enable me to consider the topic of ergonomics in a more ergonomic manner.

  9. Reblogged this on Optimal Performance Consultants Blog and commented:
    We carefully researched the English dictionaries and Latin roots of the word Ergonomic. At Optimal we have used the correct term Ergonomic for over 22 years. Proud of my command of the English language thanks for Phonetics, super English teachers and my Mom’s teachings! JE Sleeth

  10. jo@ergochair.co.uk says:

    …someone’s really upset you today, haven’t they?

    I agree, by the way …and to this end, you’ll notice that in the ZentoSmart mailer I sent today (and in our literature for the chair) I do not mention the word ergonomic once. The meaning of the word has now become too distorted

    Best wishes Jo

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