Ergonomically designed, or marketed?

We’ve all seen items marketed as “ergonomically designed”, which typically means that a coat of rubber has been slapped around the handle, or the item is bent or angled in some way that makes it more comfortable to use. (Consider pens, shovels, keyboards, etc.) We recently came across an ad in the Toronto Star that used the term “ergonomics” in a whole new way. It might have attracted some business for the advertiser, but it sure didn’t make me want to spend my money there! The ad, showing a couple of hound dogs lounging on a dock wearing sunglasses, said, “Lumbar support meet true ergonomics.” Our first reaction was, “What the heck does this have to do with ergonomics?” Clearly, the advertiser is using a buzzword to sell stuff, but if an ergonomist can’t make the connection, how should anyone else? So we looked a bit closer. Nope. Nothing in the ad suggested any effort to “fit work to people”. The ad promoted “fun”, and “relaxation”. (They were selling condos in cottage country.) When we analysed their tagline, we think that the advertiser was equating “lumbar support” with drudgery and work, and “true ergonomics” with leisure and recreation.
Is this what ergonomics is? Absolutely not. Ergonomics means making people more comfortable, productive, and safe at work. In the true sense of the word, “ergonomics” means the “study of work”. It can also be applied at home, of course, but never will you hear an ergonomist say that you should lounge out on a dock all day in an effort to become “productive” or “safe”.
We’ve often lamented the lack of regulations around the use of the term “ergonomics”. Unlike “light beer” and “diet” cola, marketers don’t have to meet any standard to use the term “ergonomic” in their promotions. It’s great that people recognize the term – certainly that was not the case 25 years ago when we started out in this field. It’s also great that people equate “ergonomics” with pleasure. But let’s not abuse the language. An item is truly “ergonomic” if it makes the task easier and safer, or if it allows you to perform at a higher level of quality or productivity. Let’s focus ergonomics on work….leisure has a way of optimizing its own quality.

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