Evolution of Ergonomics: From Early Man to Modern Human

by Jackie Edwards

The word ergonomics was first used in 1857 in a philosophical narrative by Polish scientist Prof. Wojciech Jastrzebowski. The term derives its name from two Greek words – Ergon, which means ‘work’ and Nomos, which translates to ‘natural law,’ literally translating into ‘how to work according to nature.’ So, ergonomics is a scientific discipline involved in the design and creation of safe and comfortable workspaces so as to best utilize a person’s abilities and boost productivity.

For example, viewing cute pictures to increase workplace productivity is also an important discovery in the field of ergonomics which increases work efficiency by enhancing the mood of workers. In layman language, ergonomics refers to designing products, environments, and systems where people are involved so as to minimize risks of harms or injuries and also, related mental or emotional stress. Interestingly, this principle has been in existence for a long time even though the term itself may have just been coined in recent history.

Where it all began

Ergonomics has been in the very cradle of human evolution, ever since early man began making tools from bones and pebbles to make tasks easier. Archaeological findings have revealed sophisticated ergonomic devices, tools, and equipment from ancient Egyptian dynasties and 5th Century BCE Greece. Several centuries later, we still use axes, plows, hammers and several such tools only in their more improvised and sophisticated designs to fit into our advanced living environment. However, it was not until the 16th century that ergonomics began to be understood and studied. It all started with Bernardino Ramazinni’s medical journal ‘De Morbis Artificum (Diseases of Workers)’ which brought to light the various injuries incurred by his patients, resulting from unfavorable conditions in their occupations and workspaces.

Industrial Revolution

During the historical Industrial Revolution of 19th century, ergonomics was at the pinnacle of attention, being studied like never before. Spinning Jennies and rolling mills were invented to speed up work. Frederick W. Taylor pioneered the process of ergonomics by evaluating the best and easier ways of accomplishing a task and eventually succeeded in improving worker productivity and wages in a shoveling job. Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, on the other hand, standardized materials, work processes and tools and began time motion analysis to make workflow efficient and less tiring.

World War II

With World War II, ergonomics reached a newer height, prompting research in man and machine interaction. This began to prominently reveal itself especially in the design of military systems like naval ships, aircraft and weaponry. The complex devices from radar to aircraft that were manufactured for the war began to demand a better grip of ergonomics without which there was a continuous risk of loss of personnel or equipment. In 1943, a U.S Army lieutenant, Alphonse Chapanis brought to light how so-called “pilot errors” could be greatly reduced. That is when logical and easier to understand control buttons were born in the cockpits of aircraft.

Ergonomics today

Work or ergonomic-related musculoskeletal injuries contributed to a third of day-offs from workplaces as per data published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2013. And, most of these were reported from sectors like agriculture, manufacturing, construction, transportation and warehousing, healthcare and entertainment/recreation. These injuries have not only sparked concern but with it, have also spiked renewed interest in the subject of ‘ergonomics’ to inspire futuristic designs for new age tools tailored to modern technological advances and lifestyle of humans.

Ergonomics may be a relatively new term and newer field of study. However, it has been a part of our life since the very moment of Stone Age. Today, Ergonomics is studied in-depth with specializations in cognitive, organizational and physical sciences.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *