Technology now has workers glued to their screens - all good news for ergonomists

Are you fumbling with your new mobile phone? Baffled by the assembly instructions of a piece of flat-pack furniture? Don't worry – it's not just you. Chances are, the designers failed to consult an ergonomist.

Most people associate ergonomics with the correct placement of work stations, but the science has a vast range of applications. Practitioners use their knowledge of anatomy, physiology and psychology to ensure that anything from tools to information displays in plane cockpits and computer interfaces are designed for ease of use and efficiency. And as technology and its applications proliferate, and health and safety remain on the agenda, it's a job with excellent prospects.

Suzanne Heape, an ergonomist with experience in a wide variety of consultancy work, relishes the problem-solving aspect of her career, and also enjoys helping people.

"In workplace assessments, you spend time watching people at their desks or at manual work stations, looking at their posture, adjusting equipment and assessing the general environment, such as heating and lighting. Employers may have thought about the height of equipment, but not about the fact that someone is standing on concrete all day, which puts a lot of pressure on the lower back," she says.

Ergonomists may also find themselves working in IT-intensive fields such as engineering, computer-software development or design. The ageing population means that ergonomists will be increasingly working on adapting things for use by the elderly, as well as for those with disabilities. "I once worked with a company that was developing a new insulin pen for diabetics," says Heape. "They are more likely to have poor sight and lose the tactile ability in their hands, so we had to look at the colour saturation on the pens and ensure that the buttons they use to key in the amounts of insulin all felt different and were placed so they could find them easily."

Collaborating with workers in other professions can be challenging, because some lack awareness of the importance of ergonomics, she says. But it can also be rewarding. "Sometimes you come up with a solution to something that's really been bugging them, and they can see how it makes their job easier and benefits their designs."

Liz Butterworth, a principal ergonomist with consultancy Human Engineering, has worked extensively with the transport and oil and gas industries, and has been involved in the design of control rooms for offshore platforms, as well as train cabs and railway signalling centres.

"Almost every major accident has some element of human error involved, so the emphasis is on supporting people in the tasks that they do and reducing the chances of them making mistakes," she says. "We help establish the requirements and ensure they are captured by the people doing the design. It's satisfying to feel you're making a difference, and that your work is having an impact on usability and safety."

To be a successful ergonomist, you need to be methodical, and good at listening to people and gathering information. Communication skills are also important, because you must be able to convey complex information in a way that clients can understand. The job can mean a lot of travel, particularly in consultancy work, because you will have to spend time on site collecting data. As you progress in your career, however, you are likely to spend less time on the road and more involved in project management.

There are in-house opportunities with large design, engineering and manufacturing companies, and organisations such as the NHS and Health and Safety Executive. But it's also possible for newly qualified ergonomists to go straight into consultancy work, an option that Butterworth recommends.

"It throws you in at the deep end and it can be more pressured, but you get a much wider range of experience, which can benefit your career," she says.

How to get in

Loughborough University (www.lboro.ac.uk) offers a three- or four-year undergraduate degree in ergonomics, the latter including a sandwich year in industry.

Another route is to study for a first degree in a subject such as engineering, design or psychology, followed by an MSc in ergonomics.

The Ergonomics Society (www.ergonomics.org.uk) has a list of universities offering postgraduate courses, as well as a useful careers information pack.

Salaries for newly qualified ergonomists start from £20,000, but can be considerably higher in certain industries. Average pay for those with several years of experience is £30,000-£40,000, rising to £60,000 for senior-level jobs.

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