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How to Get Started in Ergonomics

by Julie McGee, PT, DPT

young-woman-doctor-older-man-patient-smiling

In school, I thought that ergonomics was boring. Why would I play around with someone’s desk and deliberate over which mouse was best for then, when there was so much other work to be done with the patients themselves?

After school, I took a job in occupational health (read: workers comp), where the physical therapists were required to perform ergonomic evaluations (or ergo evaluations). My employer paid for me to take classes in ergonomics and get my CEAS.

Over time, I found ergonomics to be pretty interesting, and enjoyed doing ergo evaluations.

What is Ergonomics?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines ergonomics as: “An applied science concerned with designing and arranging things people use so that the people and things interact most efficiently and safely-called also biotechnology, human engineering, human factors,” or, “the design characteristics of an object resulting especially from the application of the science of ergonomics.”

While the expertise of physical therapists make them a natural fit for performing ergo evals, other professionals such as occupational therapists, nurses, and others with an education background in public health can also obtain a certification in ergonomics.

Why do physical therapists make good ergonomists?

Physical therapists are anatomists and movement experts. We can use this knowledge of human anatomy and movement to make tasks and equipment fit the user. By having a good understanding or ergonomics, we can advise patients on how to perform tasks such as lifting, working at the computer, or using tools without placing undue stress on the body.

We can also advise workers on how using a slightly different piece of equipment, such as a properly-fitting chair or keyboard, can help to either prevent or reduce the symptoms of an injury. By following our advice, and setting themselves up appropriately, patients can avoid acute or repetitive strain injuries.

PTs can also use their knowledge of ergonomics to consult with employers, governments, or other groups on best practices, proper workplace setup, or protocols to help decrease the rate of injury.

What types of certifications are available?

Having a certification in ergonomics identifies professionals who have some specific knowledge of ergonomics.

There are several different types of ergonomic certifications including:

  • Certified Ergonomic Assessment Specialist (CEAS)
  • Certified Ergonomic Evaluation Specialist (CEES)
  • Board Certification in Professional Ergonomics (BCPE)

To earn one of these certifications, one must take a specific course in ergonomics. Many of the entities that oversee the certification also have a variety of online and in-person courses. For many of these certifications, they require that you take their course, pass a written test, and complete two ergonomic evaluations and submit your written report.

As for which certification one should obtain, it may depend on whom you plan on doing ergo evals for. Some employer groups may favor those with a CEAS since they use guidelines set forth by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). A CEES uses guidelines from OSHA, the National Institute of Safety and Health (NIOSH), and the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) protocol. The International Ergonomics Association (IEA) recognizes a BCPE certification. Other employer groups may not be very particular, as long as you demonstrate some training and specialization in ergonomics.

If you are still wondering which certification would be best, you may need to ask around. Is there a PT in your clinic who already does ergo evals? Ask which type of certification they have.

If you are interested in getting a certification to stand out in your clinic because no one else has one, you may need to expand your research into asking other PTs in the community or professors from your PT school.

How does an ergonomics training and certification benefit your practice as a PT?

Doing an ergonomic evaluation allowed me to see how my patients functioned in their workspace. By seeing my patients working, I had a better understanding of each injury and how to treat it.

Needless to say, helping her to get a document holder to place next to her computer screen so that she wouldn’t have to turn her head as far helped her immensely.

Having the ability to perform ergonomic evaluations may be helpful to more people than just your patients. While I was working in an occupational health clinic, I would be assigned ergo evals 1-2 times a month. Each evaluation would take me about a half day to perform and write up. This helped to break up my day where I would normally see patients every 30 to 45 minutes. Having the ability to get out of the clinic, but still use my PT brain helped to prevent burnout.

While having a certification to perform ergonomic evals was a requirement for PTs in my clinic, other clinics may only have enough space for one PT to perform evals.

If this happens, then your clinic will be able to offer ergo evals seamlessly if you already have a certification in ergonomics and are ready to go. You may also find opportunities to work as an ergonomics consultant on your own, or on a per diem basis for other companies.

Where does one go to get certified in ergonomics?

The courses from ergonomic certification courses by groups such as The Back School of Atlanta (https://thebackschool.net), and Matheson (https://www.roymatheson.com) also offer continuing education credits that many states now require to maintain licensure. Additionally, educata.org offers a course by Lauren Hebert PT, DPT, OCS on how to create a work injury consulting practice.

With many employers offering some sort of financial assistance with continuing education, you may also be able to soften the financial impact of the cost of the course as well. If you are afraid that you will take the course and obtain the certification, only to have your skills go unused, think again. The information in these courses may open your eyes to how some workplace injuries happen, and how to correct for and prevent them. This will help you in your clinical work.

Being a certified ergonomist will not only help your patients, but can help you to diversify your workload. You will gain knowledge on how to make work and workspaces functional and safe. In addition, having the skill of being able to provide ergonomics consultation is another tool in your PT toolbox and may also open up new opportunities for non-clinical work down the road.

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