Physical Therapists as Ergonomists: A Model for 21st Century Healthcare

This article is both a guide for Physical Therapists who want to pursue ergonomics certifications and also a helpful resource for individuals who are interested in office ergonomics training. 

If you would like more information on an Online Ergonomics Certification Course, check out this course by Worksite International Inc. 

Online Ergonomics Training Course


Current State: Physical Therapy and Office Ergonomics

It is no secret being a Physical Therapist in the 21st Century is not without its difficulties.

According to O’NET, the projected growth for the next ten years is much faster than other occupations at 15% or higher. Despite good job potential, a shrinking and unstable healthcare market has left us begging for Medicare dollars and physician referrals to maintain our traditional practice models and fighting for dominance in the “hands-on” healthcare marketplace.

For sure, the motto “only the strong will survive” is true in today’s physical therapy marketplace. With the HMO stranglehold on physicians, rising healthcare costs, the uncertainty of the ACA, hospital cutbacks as well as a flood of other hands-on rehab and sports medical professionals all vying for the same patient. PT’s have been forced to turn their attention to other creative markets.

One market segment that holds significant potential for the physical therapist lies within America’s core economy: the business and industry marketplace.   

Ergonomics in the Workplace: Why it Matters 

The American Workplace is Ripe with Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSDs)

America’s workplace continues to thrive in a steady economy. Americans are working harder than ever before. In 2018, ranked American workers as the sixth most productive in the world2. America has some of the most stringent occupational health and safety laws in the world to protect our workers. The legislators and regulators have gone the extra mile over the last few decades to push for improved working conditions for US workers.

Supported by health and safety regulations, workers’ compensation labor laws, the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act) and the push for state and federal regulations supporting workplace ergonomics, the PT is in even more demand than ever before in this segment of our economy. These regulations primarily support the prevention and management of musculoskeletal disorders, an area of expertise for most physical therapists.

In 2017, 2.8 million nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses were reported by private industry employers, which occurred at a rate of 2.8 cases per 100 full-time equivalent (FTE) workers, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported4. Approximately 34 percent of injuries are musculoskeletal in nature and most commonly sprains, strains and tears5.

Between the legislation and the prevalence of work injury, the writing is on the wall. Many PTs have identified with the opportunities available in the onsite industrial and business setting. It is through ergonomics and the management of workers’ compensation claims that they are entering this segment of the marketplace and many are thriving.

What is Ergonomics? 

Let us first define ergonomics. The Board of Certification in Professional Ergonomics (BCPE) defines ergonomics as a body of knowledge about human abilities, human limitations and other human characteristics that are relevant to design6.

Literally, ergonomics means “the laws of work” incorporating human function with the design of tools, machines, systems, tasks, jobs and environments for safe, comfortable and effective human use.

Searching for New Horizons

Over the last decade, ergonomics has gained significant popularity with healthcare professionals, particularly physical therapists. Ergonomics and Human Factors Engineering is projected to grow 14%-19% in the next ten years6. A few of these professionals began as physical therapists. According to the BCPE, there are approximately 27 Board Certified Ergonomists with a Physical Therapy degree as of this summer. That’s not many…. Leaving lots of room for growth!

Needless to say, the job market is robust for entry into this field. Whether you pursue a degree in Human Factors and Ergonomics Engineering, participate in continuing education programs sponsored through leading universities and other courses, or benefit from reading the literature and gaining onsite ergonomics experience, all are options in the transition to becoming an ergonomics practitioner.

The Physical Therapist has a great advantage possessing key knowledge and skills to perform ergonomic worksite analysis, provide employee training on safe body mechanics and work practices and to develop critical control measures to reduce ergonomic risk factors. All critical factors in helping employers reduce the risk of work-related musculoskeletal strains and sprains.

Ergonomics Certifications for Physical Therapists

Developing yourself into an ergonomics practitioner takes time and dedication beyond a one-day or even a one-week workshop or participating in the onsite hospital ergonomics and safety team. It takes the integration of all your skills, knowledge and desire to learn about the American worker as well as business and industry over a period of years. Commitment to the practice of ergonomics and respecting the last 70+ years of research that dedicated human factors and ergonomics practitioners have forged is also essential.

The last two and a half decades has recognized the pursuit of ergonomics as a career by more than just engineers and industrial psychologists and as such, a well-defined pool of certifying entities has developed outside the traditional university. There are now a range of private business and board-certified programs available to the physical therapist. Deciding which to pursue is a matter of a personal choice understanding the criteria that each offers. It’s the difference between earning an Ergonomics Certificate vs. an Ergonomics Certification7. However, the pursuit of certification in ergonomics is vital to the PT profession to demonstrate professionalism and true competency in this burgeoning field.

Private-Label Certification is a Steppingstone to Board Certification

A good place to start transitioning to ergonomics is by enrolling in a “private certification” course. These are most often provided through a privately-owned corporation, not necessarily supported by a recognized national board. In general, students pay a fee to attend the class, take the course, complete any requirements to receive a certificate as an office ergonomic specialist or other designation determined by the company.

Most of these offer a peer review process to look at sample evaluations completed by the student and/or exam to pass at a minimum. These workshops generally are offered as a 1 to 3-day program and don’t require any preliminary education or experience. Participation is often diverse from various industries and level of education. Some private courses include coaching and mentoring for a more personal experience assuring competency in the field, such as Worksite International’s certificate program as a Certified Office Ergonomics Specialist (COESp).

Pursuing Board Certification in Ergonomics

If earning a Master’s in Human Factors and Ergonomics is not up your alley, then take a look at the two national ergonomics professional boards. These are more formal organizations with procedures for examining and certifying qualified practitioners of ergonomics and are supported by multiple professionals with credentials serving on a board of directors. The two national boards existing today to certify Human Factors and Ergonomics professionals are the Board of Certification in Professional Ergonomics, BCPE ( ) and the Oxford Research Institute, ORI ( ).

The BCPE is governed by an elected board of leading professionals and is managed by an Executive Administrator and a Financial/Information Systems Manager. The BCPE is endorsed by the IEA, the International Ergonomics Association, as an accredited ergonomics certifying body and is a corporate member of NOCA, the National Organization for Competency Assurance. The ORI has established a rigorous process for certification based upon a controlled peer-review process. The Oxford Research Institute is a nonprofit, ergonomics Safety Corporation within the State of Maryland and is managed by a board of directors and an executive director.

As a result, the standard of knowledge, experience, and skill obtained through these avenues has significant variance. Those who choose to pursue board certification and pass demonstrate substantially more knowledge, skill and experience earning the title of PT/Ergonomist (Certified Professional Ergonomist (CPE) or Certified Industrial Ergonomist (CIE). Compared to those that complete private certificate programs which offer a variety of credentials from COESp to COEE to CEAS or others. At best, these can offer you the confidence to call yourself an “ergonomics specialist”.

Types of Ergonomic Certifications

The table below identifies the “private certificate” and board-certified ergonomics programs available in today’s marketplace and the certificate/certification provided by each group. The table does not include human factors certifications or human factors and engineering degree programs available through universities and colleges. The list is not all-inclusive.




1. Board of Certification in Professional Ergonomics (BCPE) National Board Certification
  • CPE – Certified Professional Ergonomist
  • AEP –Associate Ergonomics Professional
2. Oxford Research Institute (ORI) National Board Certification
  • CIE – Certified Industrial Ergonomist
  • CAE – Certified Associate Ergonomist
3. Worksite International, Inc. Private Business Certification COESp: Certified Office Ergonomics Specialist (using the Worksite International System of Ergonomic Evaluations)

CASp: Certified Chair Assessment Specialist

4. Matheson’s Ergonomic Evaluation Certification Program Private Business Certification CEES -Certified Ergonomic Evaluation Specialist
5. The Back School Private Business Certification CEAS I, II, III -Certified Ergonomic Assessment Specialist
6. OCCUPRO Private Business Certification COEE-Certified Office Ergonomic Evaluator
7. Humanscale Private Business Certification COEE-Certified Office Ergonomics Evaluator

How to Become a Certified Ergonomist

Gaining the necessary experience to become qualified in Ergonomics is difficult. It takes substantial time and effort to not only accrue the onsite work experience, but to accomplish the reporting enough to achieve the credentials. Each entity has set a minimum level of competency beyond the typical core curriculum of the physical therapist.

Experience is Needed and Necessary

All ergonomics certifying boards and private certificate entities have each established their own minimal criteria, if any, which offers significant variability in the level of competency of the certificate holder. This is particularly noted with private certificate programs which require little to no experience provided; just the money for the course and the will to complete the criteria necessary. Whereas, the BCPE and ORI require a BS degree or higher and at least three to six years experience relevant to qualify for their CPE or CIE certifications, respectively.

Nonetheless, to move into the field, the PT is best advised to acquire the necessary skills through continuing education courses, on the job training and mentoring. Pursuing board certification at some level will demonstrate to regulators, employers, insurers, physicians and practicing ergonomists and human factors professionals a quality level of competency to practice ergonomics that will assure the PTs place in the professional field of Ergonomics.

Physical Therapists as Ergonomic Specialists

Choosing to pursue ergonomics as an adjunct to your current PT practice or making the transition entirely to PT/Ergonomist or specialist will afford significant opportunities for the PT in the 21st century. Becoming a PT/Ergonomic Specialist is more than just being able to perform an office ergonomic analysis or return an injured worker back to work with the installation of a keyboard tray or other strategies. Learning how corporate America operates; the art of consultation including when to leave the “clinical skills” out of the onsite equation and focus on the business of ergonomics and changing how people work is what wins business. It takes dedication to learn how to integrate the theory and practice of ergonomics into who we are as a profession and validating our work in the field to those who have gone before us.

The Financial Benefits of Ergonomics and Physical Therapy

In this marketplace, there are currently no capitations, no CPT or RVS codes. A dollar billed is a dollar received. There are no HMO rules restricting the delivery of the service, only the desire of the employer and insurer to do the right thing for the (injured) worker and to preserve safety, health and productivity in the workplace. Here, the PT Ergonomist can make a substantial and significant impact no longer patient-by-patient but by impacting an entire workforce over time with ergonomics skills and savvy as well as our superior knowledge in musculoskeletal disorder prevention and management, forever changing the way healthcare is delivered onsite in this country.

If you are a physical therapist interested in learning more about the field of ergonomics, reach out to Alison Heller-Ono MSPT, CPE for a quick 15-minute chat to get started. Alison is a 26-year veteran and pioneer as a consulting PT/Ergonomist (CPE).

This article was written by: Alison Heller-Ono MSPT, CDA, CIE, CPE

She is a Certified Management Consultant and President/CEO, Worksite International, Inc.

For more information on workplace ergonomics training or to connect with Alison, you can reach her at:

Worksite International
170 17th Street, Ste F
Pacific Grove, CA 93950

Phone: 831-648-8724   


  1. Summary report for Physical Therapists 29-1123.00. Available at .
  2. Information on Productivity. Available at . Accessed on July 21, 2019.
  3. The 20 most productive nations in the world. Available at Accessed on August 8, 2010.
  4. Non-fatal Injuries and Illness in the Private Sector. Available at . Accessed on July 21, 2019
  5. Summary BLS Report . Accessed on July 21, 2019.
  6. Summary report for Human Factors Engineers and Ergonomists 17-2112.01. Available at Accessed on July 21, 2019.
  7. What Employers Need to Know About Certifications blog, June 26, 2019
  8. Board of Certification in Professional Ergonomics. Available at
  9. Oxford Research Institute. Available at
  10. 7 Common Ergonomic Certifications and What They Really Mean blog, May 31, 2018

Tim Fraticelli DPT, MBA, CFP®

Tim Fraticelli is a Physical Therapist, Certified Financial Planner™ and founder of He loves to teach PTs and OTs ways to save time and money in and out of the clinic, especially when it comes to documentation or continuing education. Follow him on YouTube for weekly videos on ways to improve your financial health.