10 Principles of Ergonomics

©Dan MacLeod, 1990, 2008

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The field of physical ergonomics can be summarized in a series of principles. You will very readily see that you can apply these principles at work, at home, or any other place.

Putting on Your Ergonomics Glasses

The basics of ergonomics do not need to be hard. Much of it amounts to looking at routine activities from a new perspective — putting on your ergonomics glasses.

ergo glasses

Principle 1
Work in Neutral Postures

Your posture provides a good starting point for evaluating the tasks that you do. The best positions in which to work are those that keep the body "in neutral."

Maintain the "S-curve" of the spine

Your spinal column is shaped more or less like an "S."

It is important to maintain the natural S-curve of the back, whether sitting or standing. The most important part of this "S" is in the lower back, which means that it is good to keep a slight "sway back,"

When standing, putting one foot up on a footrest helps to keep the spinal column in proper alignment.

Working for long periods with your back in a “C-curve” can place strain on your back.

Good lumbar support is often helpful to maintain the proper curve in the small of your back.


The “Inverted V-curve” creates an even greater strain on your back.  Even without lifting a load, bending over like this creates a great deal of pressure on the spine. 


One common improvement is to use a lifter or tilter.  Or there may be other ways of making improvements depending upon the situation.

Keep the neck aligned

The neck bones are part of the spinal column and thus are subject to the same requirements of maintaining the S-curve. Prolonged twisted and bent postures of the neck can be as stressful as its equivalent for the lower back.

The best way to make changes is usually to adjust equipment so that your neck is in its neutral posture.


Keeps elbows at sides

The neutral posture for your arms is to keep you elbows at your sides and your shoulders relaxed.  This is pretty obvious once you think about it, but we don’t always do it.

Here’s an example of changing a workstation to get the arms in neutral. In the illustration at the left, the product is too high, and the employee is hunching her shoulders and winging out her elbows.

In the right-hand illustration, the product has been reoriented and the shoulders and elbows drop to their relaxed position.

Keep Wrists in Neutral

There are several good ways to think about wrist posture. One way is to keep the hand in the same plane as the forearm, as this person is doing here by using a wrist rest along with the computer mouse.

A slightly more accurate approach is to keep your hands more or less like they would be when you hold the steering wheel of your car at the 10 and 2 o’clock position — slightly in and slightly forward.

Here’s an example of how this principle applies to tool design. Working continuously with the pliers as shown in the left-hand picture can create a lot of stress on the wrist. By using pliers with an angled grip, however, the wrist stays in its neutral posture.


Principle 2
Reduce Excessive Force

Excessive force on your joints can create a potential for fatigue and injury.  In practical terms, the action item is for you to identify specific instances of excessive force and think of ways to make improvements.

For example, pulling a heavy cart might create excessive force for your back. To make improvements it might help to make sure the floor is in good repair, that the wheels on the cart are sufficiently large, and that there are good grips on the cart. Or a power tugger might be needed.

p14 pull cart

Or another example of reducing force is to use a hoist for lifting heavy objects, like this vacuum hoist in the drawing.

p15 vacuum hoist

Another kind of example is having handholds on boxes or carrying totes. Having the handhold reduces the exertion your hands need to carry the same amount of weight.

p16_no_grip.jpg (1904 bytes)p17_grip.jpg (2208 bytes)


There are thousands of other examples and the field of ergonomics includes much information on conditions that affect force. The basic point is to recognize activities that require excessive force, then think of any way you can to reduce that force.

Principle 3
Keep Everything in Easy Reach

The next principle deals with keeping things within easy reach.  In many ways, this principle is redundant with posture, but it helps to evaluate a task from this specific perspective.

Reach Envelope

One concept is to think about the "reach envelope." This is the semi-circle that your arms make as you reach out. Things that you use frequently should ideally be within the reach envelope of your full arm. Things that you use extremely frequently should be within the reach envelope of your forearms.

reach envelope

Much of the time, problems with reach are simply matters of rearranging your work area and moving things closer to you. This is not exactly a hard concept to grasp; what is difficult is having the presence of mind to notice and change the location of things that you reach for a lot.

Often it is a matter of habit — you are unaware that you continually reach for something that could be easily moved closer.

p19 Reach for mouse

Or sometimes, the work surface is just too big, causing you to reach across to get something. One option is just to get a smaller surface. Another option is to make a cutout — this way your reaches are cut, but you still have plenty of space for things.

p20 cutout

Or another common problem is reaching into boxes. A good way to fix this is to tilt the box.

Once again, there are thousands of other examples of ways to reduce long reaches. The point is for you to think about when you make long reaches, then figure out how to reduce that reach.

p21 reach boxp22 tilted box

Principle 4
Work at Proper Heights

Working at the right height is also a way to make things easier.

Do most work at elbow height

A good rule of thumb is that most work should be done at about elbow height, whether sitting or standing.

A real common example is working with a computer keyboard. But, there are many other types of tasks where the rule applies.

p23 elbow height typing

 Exceptions to the Rule

There are exceptions to this rule, however. Heavier work is often best done lower than elbow height. Precision work or visually intense work is often best done at heights above the elbow.

p24 exceptions to the rule

Sometimes you can adjust heights by extending the legs to a work tables or cutting them down. Or you can either put a work platform on top of the table (to raise the work up) or stand on a platform (to raise YOU up).

Or to be a little more complicated, there are ways to make stands and work tables instantaneously adjustable with hand cranks or pushbutton controls.

p25 platformp26 riser

Principle 5
Reduce Excessive Motions

The next principle to think about is the number of motions you make throughout a day, whether with your fingers, your wrists, your arms, or your back.

One of the simplest ways to reduce manual repetitions is to use power tools whenever possible.

p27 screwdrivers

Another approach is to change layouts of equipment to eliminate motions. In the example here, the box is moved closer and tilted, so that you can slide the products in, rather than having to pick them up each time. p28 pick n placep29 slide
Or sometimes there are uneven surfaces or lips that are in the way. By changing these, you can eliminate motions.

As always, there are more examples, but you should be getting the idea.

p30 lip

Principle 6
Minimize Fatigue and Static Load

Holding the same position for a period of time is known as static load. It creates fatigue and discomfort and can interfere with work.

A good example of static load that everyone has experienced is writer’s cramp. You do not need to hold onto a pencil very hard, just for long periods. Your muscles tire after a time and begin to hurt.

p31 writers cramp

In the workplace, having to hold parts and tools continually is an example of static load.


In this case, using a fixture eliminates the need to hold onto the part.

p32 hand as fixturep33 fixture

Having to hold your arms overhead for a few minutes is another classic example of static load, this time affecting the shoulder muscles. Sometimes you can change the orientation of the work area to prevent this, or sometimes you can add extenders to the tools.

p34 reach up

Having to stand for a long time creates a static load on your legs. Simply having a footrest can permit you to reposition your legs and make it easier to stand.

We’re going come back to this point later.

p35 footrest

Principle 7
Minimize Pressure Points

Another thing to watch out for is excessive pressure points, sometimes called "contact stress."

A good example of this is squeezing hard onto a tool, like a pair of pliers. Adding a cushioned grip and contouring the handles to fit your hand makes this problem better.

p36 pliers with edgesp37 pliers, cushioned

Leaning your forearms against the hard edge of a work table creates a pressure point. Rounding out the edge and padding it usually helps.

p38 table edge

We’ve all had to sit on chairs that had cushioning and so understand almost everything we need to know about pressure points. A particularly vulnerable spot is behind your knees, which happens if your chair is too high or when you dangle your legs. Another pressure point that can happen when you sit is between your thigh and the bottom of a table. p39 chair edge
A slightly more subtle kind of pressure point occurs when you stand on a hard surface, like concrete. Your heels and feet can begin to hurt and your whole legs can begin to tire. The answer is anti-fatigue matting or sometimes using special insoles in your shoes.

Like the other basic principles that we’ve covered so far, pressure points are things that you can look for in your work areas to see if there are ways to make improvements.

p40 mat

Principle 8
Provide Clearance

Having enough clearance is a concept that is easy to relate to.

Work areas need to be set up so that you have sufficient room for your head, your knees, and your feet. You obviously don’t want to have to bump into things all the time, or have to work in contorted postures, or reach because there is no space for your knees or feet.

p41 clearance

Being able to see is another version of this principle. Equipment should be built and tasks should be set up so that nothing blocks your view.

p42 visual clearance

Principle 9
Move, Exercise, and Stretch

To be healthy the human body needs to be exercised and stretched.

You should not conclude after reading all the preceding information about reducing repetition, force, and awkward postures, that you’re best off just lying around pushing buttons.  Muscles need to be loaded and your heart rate needs periodic elevation.

p43 muscle

Depending upon the type of work you do, different exercises on the job can be helpful.
  • If you have a physically demanding job, you may find it helpful to stretch and warm up before any strenuous activity.
  • If you have a sedentary job, you may want to take a quick "energy break" every so often to do a few stretches.

p44 stretch

If you sit for long periods, you need to shift postures:
  • Adjust the seat up and down throughout the day.
  • Move, stretch, and change positions often.

p45 multiple postures

It actually would be ideal if you could alternate between sitting and standing throughout the day. For some tasks, such as customer service, desks are available that move up and down for this purpose (this is not new; Thomas Jefferson built a desk like this for himself).

p46 sit and stand

Principle 10
Maintain a Comfortable Environment

This principle is more or less a catch-all that can mean different things depending upon the nature of the types of operations that you do.

Lighting and Glare

One common problem is lighting.

In the computerized office, lighting has become a big issue, because the highly polished computer screen reflects every stray bit of light around.

p47 glare

But many other types of tasks can be affected by poor lighting, too. Concerns include glare, working in your own shadow, and just plain insufficient light.

One good way to solve lighting problems is by using task lighting; that is, having a small light right at your work that you can orient and adjust to fit your needs.

p48 task light


Vibration is another common problem that can benefit from evaluation. As an example, vibrating tools can be dampened.

p49 vibration

Note: The above principles all address physical issues, those items that people are most interested in currently.  Two additional "principles" are:

11. Make displays and controls understandable

12. Improve work organization

These last two "principles" are in fact huge topics that in themselves can be summarized in a series of principles.