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Green Ergonomics: Enhancing Human Performance, Well-Being, and Health

Identifying how to maximize human health and efficiency while simultaneously minimizing our impact on the environment is the quandary of the 21st century. Research from a number of fields points toward the positive impact nature can have on human effectiveness, productivity, and well-being. An emerging research area I find fascinating is focused on green ergonomics, and it is poised to take all of this to an entirely new level.

Green ergonomics explores the connection of humans with nature and how nature facilitates well-being, health, productivity and effectiveness (Thatcher, 2013). Green ergonomics is nested within the discipline of ergonomics, which is a field focused on improving the systems that people operate within to optimize human well-being and overall system performance (International Ergonomics Association, IEA, 2000).  Green ergonomics is concerned about the development of human systems that integrate fully in a sustainable way with natural environments, and seeks to understand how engineered environments can be adapted to promote more human-nature connections (Thatcher, 2013).

This research area is vitally important because of the continued degradation of the natural environment, and the direct link this has on human quality of life. It is difficult to maintain quality of life in an environment that itself is not healthy. Andrew Thatcher, Associate Professor at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa believes that the goals of ergonomics (effectiveness, efficiency, health, safety and usability) are closely aligned with the goals of design for environmental sustainability according to an article published in the journal Ergonomics. Thatcher believes that one area of focus for green ergonomics is how damage to ecosystems negatively impacts human well-being and effectiveness. A degraded environment can not provide the resources needed to promote health and well-being such as nutritious food, clean air, fresh water, or nutrient-rich soil.

Therapeutic gardens near a workplace can be stress reducing. Photo by Mark Ellison

Therapeutic gardens near a workplace can be stress reducing. Photo by Mark Ellison

Thatcher describes the need for green ergonomics to focus on reducing the human impact  on ecosystems through ergonomic design to diminish or avoid natural crises. Examples of ergonomic focus areas  include  improving the eco-efficiency of products or designing and evaluating products with a pro-nature benefits. Examples of products the incorporate green ergonomic design could be a walking frame made from lighter material or the continued development of energy saving devices. A larger system design perspective could include looking at how the design and implementation of traffic circles reduces fuel consumption and vehicle emissions. Green ergonomics researchers also evaluate the well-being and productivity benefits of pf pro-nature aspects of indoor environmental quality, particularly in the work setting. Research in this area has also addressed the “sick building” syndrome with solutions that  include the introduction of natural light to work areas and improvement of indoor air quality, sometimes through the use of indoor plants to remove pollutants.

Does a spider web hold clues for biomimetic design? Photo by Mark Ellison

Does a spider web hold clues for biomimetic design? Photo by Mark Ellison

Biomimetic design is another area green ergonomics is embracing to impact human health and effectiveness. Biomimicry is nature inspired innovation. Thatcher provides examples of biomimetic design, such as the “bullet” train that is designed like a kingfisher’s beak to produce a more energy efficient, quieter, and faster ride, and the Eastgate building in Zimbabwe which was designed based on a termite mound to reduce energy consumption, and to maintain a constant internal temperature. An application of biomimetic design that has been utilized from a green ergonomics perspective considered how winding rivers, shapes of clouds, uneven horizons, the branching structure of trees and other fractal structures can be applied to the design of knowledge work environments. Ergonomics research has also focused on how creativity is stimulated by factors such as natural daylight, fresh air circulation, external windows, and aesthetic views. Findings related to this type of research can have broad implications for how work spaces are designed.

Ergonomics also has a role in influencing behavior change related to conservation of energy and water, and improvement of air quality. Thatcher believes this includes facilitating a deepening understanding of the connections between nature and health to encourage sustained behavior change, keeping eco-efficiency awareness levels high, and aiding in the development of lean manufacturing processes that take nature into account.

The discussions taking place in green ergonomics can have a significant impact in many areas.   Occupational therapy can readily apply this research to help adapt work spaces to meet changing work force demands, as well as for the adaptive reuse of furniture and equipment to contribute to environmental sustainability (Dorsey & Miller, 2013). Horticultural therapists can build upon the findings of research in this field to develop programs that introduce nature to the workplace, and take employees out into the garden to improve well-being. Urban planners can use this type of research to develop urban green spaces that promote well-being and human effectiveness. Human resource development professionals can use this to develop work settings and systems that promote employee health and maximize efficiency. Perhaps most important, we are all going to be able to experience healthier indoor and outdoor environments that enhance our health, well-being, and productivity.

Dorsey, J. & Miller, L. (2013). Green ergonomics: Occupational therapy’s role in the sustainability movement. OT Practice, August, 2013.

Thatcher, Andrew (2012). Green ergonomics: Definition and scope. Ergonomics, 56:3, 389-398.

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