DALLAS – An economically fit business depends on healthy, productive employees to thrive. And that’s where ergonomists come into the picture.

To many people, “ergonomics” relates to seating comfort or the design of car controls and instruments. But that’s not all.

The field, also known as human factors engineering, borrows from anatomy, physiology, psychology and design, according to the Ergonomics Society.

“Ergonomists apply their diverse knowledge to ensure that products and environments are comfortable, safe and efficient for people to use,” the London-based organization says.

U.S. manufacturers are recognizing that minimizing injuries saves money. And so they’re hiring ergonomists to enhance the usability of everything from desks and chairs to computer software and keyboards to heavy construction equipment.

These professionals are crucial to the health of our work force, said Penny Prince, corporate ergonomist at American Airlines in Fort Worth, Texas.

“The U.S. is a fast-paced society that likes to work hard and play hard,” she said. “The job requires an understanding of the needs and desires of a wide variety of workers – from VPs to laborers, from engineers to medical professionals, from industrial athletes (such as assembly-line workers) to individuals with disabilities.”

Among her duties, Prince monitors government regulations, identifies ergonomic risk factors and assists in the selection of equipment. Her focus is on manual-handling procedures and similar workplace activities.

“I am also involved with a variety of other projects, such as the redesign of work environments, updating physical job descriptions, and office ergonomics,” she said.

Prince knows of only one other ergonomist employed by the airline industry. Ergonomists tend to work for large companies because they have the need and funds to support a full-time position. But many more operate as independent consultants.

Given the diversity of settings, Prince estimates that salaries range from the mid-$30,000s to six figures.

“Working as a consultant seems to be more typical since many companies are outsourcing specialists,” she said.

Among these consultants is Mark Heidebrecht of ErgoMethods LLC and Ergo-Online.net in Kansas City. He foresees an exponential increase in the demand for ergonomists.

Ergonomic interventions can help prevent accidents and play a part in resolutions once mishaps occur, Heidebrecht said.

“If ergonomists are involved in the design stages of equipment, workstations and consumer products, much of the chance of injury or error in the use of such items can be eliminated,” he said.

And much of the need for ergonomists is tied to an aging work force in industrialized nations, said Sheree Gibson of Ergonomics Applications in Duncan, S.C. “Tasks that were doable in our 20s become problematic in our 40s and are causing surgeries in our 50s,” she said.

“We have to redesign the way we do jobs. We have to work smarter, not harder. We can’t be competitive economically with high workers’ compensation costs or a work force with a high number on disability.”

These concepts have started to sink in. Employers are seeking solutions to curb the prevalence and expense of musculoskeletal disorders, including back and shoulder injuries, tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome.

Most practicing ergonomists have at least a master’s degree in ergonomics or a related field such as industrial or mechanical engineering. Ergonomists also come from other backgrounds – physical or occupational therapy, psychology and kinesiology, to name a few. A basic understanding of physics and biomechanics is helpful, Goggins said.

Beyond that, “you have to have good interviewing skills and the ability to talk to everyone from CEOs to line workers, since you need input from everyone at a company,” he said.

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