What do a split computer keyboard, air bags, and astronaut toothpaste have in common? What information do ergonomists need to design things?


What is ergonomics and why is it important?

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The team shows how ergonomics makes life more comfortable.   Segment length: 5:30


Have you ever wondered how astronauts brush their teeth in space? You don't see any sinks in spacecraft, do you? And in zero gravity, how can they rinse and spit out after brushing?

Astronauts can brush in space thanks to a very clever invention. They use a foamless toothpaste that doesn't need water, has a pleasant taste, and is perfectly safe to swallow.

Edible toothpaste is just one example of ergonomics at work. Ergonomics is a term taken from the Greek word "ergon", meaning "work," and "nomos"; meaning "natural laws." In other words, ergonomics refers to the natural laws of work. It's the science of designing the job, products, and place to fit the worker.

Ergonomics enters into the design of everything from equipment for space missions to the most comfortable car interior or athletic shoes. The idea behind it is simple. If you use a tool to do something it wasn't designed to do, then the tool can be damaged. In the same way, if you perform tasks beyond your physical capabilities, then you can get "damaged," too.

Many work-related injuries develop gradually over time. Called cumulative trauma disorders (CTDs), or repetitive motion disorders, they can be caused by repeated, constant, or excessive stress on muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones, and nerves. If your job requires you to continually bend, lift, or stretch, you could end up with a back sprain. If you need to constantly bend, twist, or make repetitive motions with your hands and wrists, such as typing on a keyboard, you might acquire carpal tunnel syndrome.

To prevent injuries, ergonomists first determine the needs and capabilities of the people who will use a work site or product. (These are called the human factors.) To do this, they conduct many tests to find out the typical body size and common physical tendencies of the workers, such as muscle movement and vision. They use instruments like anthropometers and sliding calipers to measure the human body, as well as workplace surveys to collect data. They also have volunteers test products and they conduct workplace simulations to watch how people do their jobs.


  1. What information would ergonomists need to design a car interior?
  2. If you were an ergonomist for the aerospace industry, what problems would you need to solve? Think of space suits, the interiors of spacecraft, and space stations.

Main Activity

Be Ergo Gurus

Create a comfortable environment for three-headed, scaly, thirsty Zorbagians.

Congratulations! You're a famous ergonomics expert, so famous that your reputation has reached the Galaxy Zorbag, where a group of friendly, superintelligent space aliens live. They've always planned to visit Earth one day, but they've worried about how they would adapt to an environment like ours.

Hearing about your skill and creativity in designing tasks, tools, and settings for human beings, they've just communicated with you telepathically and told you they'll be coming soon for a yearlong stay. They'll need a place to live and work during their visit. They know how to access our "primitive" computers, so they'll need comfortable workstations as well. Since they'd like to do some sightseeing, they'll also need transportation.

The problem is, like most space aliens, the Zorbagians have some peculiarities:

Your mission is to come up with ideas to help them adapt to this environment. You want them to be comfortable and productive as they live and work here. You need to protect them from any problems they may encounter, and still make them feel at home. Since this is such an important intergalactic visit, you have unlimited access to manufacturing plants and production facilities. All you have to do is come up with the design ideas. So go to it! The Zorbagians are coming soon!


  1. Did any teams come up with similar ideas? Work as a class to select what you think are the most workable design ideas.
  2. What kind of process did your team go through when working on this project? What were the main problems you encountered? How did you solve them?

Ergonomics is a relatively new science, although its basic principles are as old as the first humans who adapted a tool for their environment. Go to the library and research when and why ergonomics was first used in industry. (Here's a hint: World War II and aircraft.)
Think of six careers that might have high rate of injuries due to cumulative trauma disorders. Interview some people with these jobs to see if your guesses are correct. What do these people do to avoid injuries?
Find a photo of an old product, such as a tool, piece of furniture, vehicle, or appliance. Compare it to a similar product of today. What changes were made to this product over time? Why were these changes made?
Interview parents, grandparents, or other older adults to learn about typical work sites, equipment, products, or work procedures when they were young. Discuss the ergonomic improvements that have been made since then.

Key Words

instrument used to measure body dimensions
carpal tunnel
narrow channel formed by bones, ligaments, and connective tissue at the wrist through which nerves, tendons, and blood vessels pass
carpal tunnel syndrome
injury that usually comes from repetitive actions with hands and wrists
cumulative trauma disorder
a group of medical disorders caused by repeated stress on muscles, tendons, ligaments, and nerves
the science of designing the job, product, and place to fit the worker
human factors
the needs and capabilities of human beings which are considered in the design of products and places
sliding caliper
instrument used to measure a distance


  1. Gay, K. (1986). Ergonomics: Making products and places fit people. New York: Enslow Publishers.

  2. Inkeles, G. & Schencke, I. (1994). Ergonomic living: How to create a user-friendly home & office. New York: Simon and Schuster.

  3. MacLeod, D. (1995) The ergonomics edge: Improving safety, quality, and productivity. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.

  4. Pater, R. & Button, R. (1992, Nov). Organizing for strategic ergonomics. Occupational Hazards, p. 55.

  5. Sanders, M.S. & McCormick, E.J. (1993) Human factors in engineering & design. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Additional resource

NEWTON'S APPLE Show 1107 (carpal tunnel syndrome). GPN: (800) 228-4630. Or call your local PBS station to find out when it will be rerun.

Additional sources of information

  1. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
    290 Independence Ave. SW
    HHH Building, Room 714B
    Washington, DC 20201

  2. The National Safety Council
    444 N. Michigan Ave.
    Chicago, IL 60611

  3. U.S. Department of Labor
    OSHA Publication Office
    200 Constitution Ave.
    Room N-3101
    Washington, DC 20210
    (Request publication OSHA 3123: Ergonomics-The study of work.)

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