Mediaplanet: What is ergonomic design? 

Tom Armstrong: Ergonomics literally is the study of work. Ergonomic design implies that human capacities and limitations were considered in the design of the work equipment and procedures. The term ergonomic is often used as an adjective to imply that the tool has been designed with users' needs in mind. 

An ergonomic tool should be based on an analysis that not only considers the worker’s capacities and limitations, but also considers where and how the tool is used. A tool may be suitable for one task, but not for another. For example, a smartphone or tablet computer might be suitable for checking a few email messages while traveling, but it probably would not be adequate for writing long messages or manuscripts every day in an office.

MP: What are the risks using standard office furniture over ergonomic solutions?

TA: It really depends on what you mean by "ergonomic furniture." Again, what is ergonomic for one person in one situation may not be ergonomic for another worker or another situation. There are a lot of arguments about the ideal characteristics of office furniture and equipment. In my opinion, one of the key features is that it should be easily adjustable by the user so that they can change positions as they get stiff or tired, or as they do different tasks.

"Human work is best treated as a complex system in which all of these factors interact to affect work performance and—at the end of the day—how the worker feels."

One of my colleagues, Martijn Mueller, is fond of saying the best position for work is the next position. Anyone who has flown more than one hour on a commercial airplane is acutely aware of the need to change positions. As an aside, there is a growing body of compelling data that shows prolonged sitting is associated with a broad range of morbidities and increased mortality.

MP: Does ergonomic design only include chairs and keyboards? 

TA: Ergonomics includes all aspects of the job—the work or task objectives that determine what and how much the worker does, the equipment that includes the keyboard, monitor, mouse, phone, desk, chair, document holders, etc., the environment where the work is performed, office, home, coffee shop, airplane or car that affect space, lighting and noise and the worker. Human work is best treated as a complex system in which all of these factors interact to affect work performance and—at the end of the day—how the worker feels. The good news is that there is an abundance of equipment now available that can be tailored in many different ways for different workers and different tasks.

Who should be seeking out ergonomic office options? 

TA: Everyone who is concerned about how they or their employees perform and feel.