Therefore, the association issued the following definition:
Definition of the International Ergonomics Association, IEA (2000):
“Ergonomics (or human factors) is the scientific discipline concerned with the understanding of interactions among humans and other elements of a system, and the profession that applies theory, principles, data and methods to design in order to optimize human well- being and overall system performance.”
This definition remains the official one for ergonomics and human factors, but the IEA recognizes the physical, cognitive and organizational branches as the three main “domains of specialization”. Modern developments, primarily from the 1990s and onwards, have seen an increase in ergonomics simulation, i.e. the introduction of ergonomics analysis tools into 3-D computer design environments. Specific software has been developed to enable the simulation of work positions and work- related actions in a 3D CAD environment, using a human form called a manikin. Manikins of both genders can be scaled to different sizes in order to investigate whether the extremes of the human population will be able to work in a proposed environment without exposing themselves to physical risk for injury. This type of software is predominantly found in technologically mature, economically profitable industrial sectors producing large, complex products, notably the automotive industry.
Another recent development which has gained popularity over the past decade is an increased emphasis on the effects of aging; demographic developments in the Western world suggest that it will be necessary to keep production employees in the workforce for a longer working life, since an outflux of retirees would cause industries a lot of brain-drain, or loss of know-how and competence. This will pose challenges in terms of designing and adapting the workplace to the changed prerequisites and demands of the human body as it ages, while at the same time supporting the worker in performing their job without loss of precision, productivity or efficiency. At the same time, workplaces must be designed to attract and support a new generation of workers, who will most likely be required to perform increasingly complex jobs from the beginning of their working lives.
Today, this combination of challenges has notably gained attention from governments and the academic world since the 2010s, resulting in an increased focus on placing social sustainability alongside economic and environmental sustainability. Engineers have a distinct advantage as workplace designers and improvers: companies that hire engineers expect them to independently come up with analyses and suggestions for change as part of improving systems and operations. Expectations from company leadership on an engineer’s mind-set and skills often lead to a role where they are trusted to come up with practical suggestions and even make decisions that change the workplace.
Other roles with ergonomics and human factors knowledge, such as ergonomists, occupational health and safety (OHS) agents, medical/ health service staff, consultants, etc. may not always have the same mandate, expectation or training to suggest design changes, purchases, work task modifications, etc. – and if they do, those with a medical or physiotherapeutic background may be limited in scope to merely providing an analysis output, but not to contribute towards a new design solution (unless the company in question is ergonomically mature enough to make this possible using cross-functional teams; but this practice is not to be taken for granted). Also, a disadvantage of addressing ergonomics and human factors from the medical/ health angle is that they are often not able to act until workers have actually been complaining or have gotten injured – and in such cases, interventions may end up tailored to easing the situation only for the injured worker on an individual basis.
It may be hard from that angle to argue for any comprehensive changes in a proactive manner, if management is not convinced that the problem can recur and cause trouble again. Therefore, workplace change agents with an engineering role have a greater leverage to make sustainable improvements, because they may be able to do something to address the root cause in the work system that may be a risk for many workers. In other words, an engineer who has good knowledge of ergonomics (and its monetary value) can have a very positive long-term impact on business because their knowledge about human needs and capabilities can be translated into feasible system design changes that can avert systemic health and safety risks. That is, engineers can do this, if they are educated and trained to recognize matters of human well-being and system performance as part of their work to make a workplace more efficient, productive and socially and economically sustainable.