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Occupational Therapy Practitioners & Ergonomics

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In contemporary society, the word ergonomics can be found in a variety of literature—everything from marketing campaigns for the latest gadget to the vast information provided in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s program guidelines for specific industries. In 1988 Etienne Grandjean, a prominent leader in ergonomics, wrote in the preface of the fourth edition of Fitting the Task to the Man, “the primary aim of ergonomics is to optimize the functioning of a system by adapting it to human capacities and needs”(p. ix). To practitioners, these words resonate with several basic tenets of the occupational therapy profession.

The Role of Occupational Therapy in Ergonomics

Optimizing function of an individual or group of individuals by adapting the environment in which the person(s) must interact is fundamental to every occupational therapy practitioner (AOTA, 2008). Specific to ergonomics, the skills and knowledge of occupational therapy practitioners in anatomy, physiology, and activity analysis make them highly qualified to have a seat at the interdisciplinary table when ergonomic issues are being addressed. For individuals as well as groups of people whose ability to perform their various life roles (e.g., their job) is affected by illness or injury, or the threat thereof, the occupational therapy practitioner is well equipped to facilitate the successful return to optimal function through the use of education, intervention, and adaptation.

Benefits of Occupational Therapy in Ergonomics

In the work setting, the occupational therapist’s use of the Person-Environment-Occupation Model enables him or her to evaluate, create, and adapt or modify changes in the way people perform daily activities. By looking through a holistic lens, the occupational therapist will give consideration to the physical, cognitive, and psychosocial elements at play, and make recommendations to optimize function. For example, an individual with limited organizational skills following a traumatic brain injury may benefit from visual aids and shadow boards. Or, ergonomic recommendations made by the occupational therapist for a group of workers may include a low-tech solution such as eliminating their need to lift heavy bags by sliding them onto work surfaces of equal height, or a high-tech solution such as computer keyboard set ups that can be customized for each worker. Occupational therapists working in the specialty of ergonomics may be involved with any of the following:

  • Conducting assessments and developing interventions for individual workers, or providing health promotion and injury prevention education programs for groups of workers.
  • Designing and modifying workplace tools, equipment, and behaviors to prevent injury.
  • Consulting with employers and insurance companies on developing programs to reduce workers’ compensation costs (e.g., strategies to address the needs of aging workers).

Where to Find Occupational Therapy Practitioners Specializing in Ergonomics

Occupational therapy practitioners working in ergonomics may be employed by or contracted to employers, insurance companies, medical facilities, case management companies, consulting firms, and engineering firms, or they may be self-employed.

Summary

The interdisciplinary team with which the occupational therapy practitioner works may include workers, union representatives, safety teams and safety professionals, human resources managers, maintenance craftsmen, engineers, ergonomists, and medical personnel. As a member of the ergonomics team, the occupational therapy practitioner specializing in ergonomics is has the necessary skills to facilitate improved function of individuals interacting within a complex system of relationships and environmental factors in the home, workplace, and public areas.

Reference

American Occupational Therapy Association. (2008). Occupational therapy practice framework: Domain and process (2nd ed.). American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 62, 625–683. doi:10.5014/ajot.62.6.625

Grandjean, E. (1988). Fitting the task to the man (4th. ed.). London: Taylor & Francis.

Revised by Faye Fick, MS, OTR/L; Julie Dorsey, MS, OTR/L, CEAS; Michael Gerg, MS, OTR/L, CHT, CEES, CWCE; and Vicki Kaskutas, OTD, MHS, OT/L, for the American Occupational Therapy Association. Copyright © 2012 by the American Occupational Therapy Association. This material may be copied and distributed for personal or educational uses without written consent. For all other uses, contact copyright@aota.org.