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The History of Ergonomics

31 May 2023

Nowadays, there is talk of ergonomics everywhere. Some see it as a vital part of the workplace - and rightly so! - while others see it as just a passing trend, and others still see it as a marketing scheme.

Only one of these is true (take a guess which one!) but where does ergonomics even come from? Why is there suddenly so much importance being placed on it? For that, we'll have to dive into the history of ergonomics and see how it all started, and how we got to where we are today.

What is Ergonomics?

Before we go down the timeline, let's first take a cursory glance at what ergonomics is.

Most people would be familiar with it, but ergonomics is a scientific discipline that looks at how people interact with their environment and the elements within it. This is most commonly assumed to be the non-sentient elements like the furniture, the layout, lighting, etc.

However, the people around you are also part of your environment and your interactions with them are also part of ergonomics - this is called cognitive ergonomics and is often disregarded when talking about the subject. Perhaps because it's a lot more difficult to change a person than the furniture, but that's a topic for another day.

While cognitive and mental ergonomics are also an important part of the subject, we'll be focusing on the physical aspect of it. The furniture you use, the way it is arranged, how much light you get - all of these are part of your physical ergonomics, and have more to do with how your office looks than who is in it.

So, why does your office look the way it does? That's what we'll be looking into.

Where Did It Start?

The word ergonomics comes from the Greek word ergon which means work or labor, and nomos, which means "natural laws". So, ergonomics becomes the "natural laws of labor". The term itself was coined by a Polish scholar back in 1857, though it only became widely known as recently as 1997 when the book got an English translation.

But ergonomics didn't start in 1857. In fact, perhaps as long as humans and civilizations have been around, so has ergonomics. After all, the nature of labor is such that there are rules and settings built around it, so it's not unreasonable to assume that there were concerns around how workers were working in ancient times as well.

We know this is true because even in studies of ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman periods, we see concerns around how health problems were caused by working. In fact, a book by an Italian physician published in 1700 called De Morbis Artificum Diatriba or The Diseases of Workers highlights the relationships between pathology and work.

The book lists a bunch of problems that workers faced as a result of the conditions they were made to work in - from tuberculosis to asthma, and even problems caused by poor posture!

Poor working conditions definitely did not start during the industrial revolution, as our studies on ancient civilizations have shown - we might even go as far as to say that it is simply human nature for some to undermine the importance of others' health and wellness; selfish people have existed in all eras, after all - but the industrial revolution definitely changed some things.

For one, it redefined the way work was done, since the new machinery and working tools came with different working requirements than what people were used to. At the same time, it also meant that a lot of manual work that was originally done by humans was now being automated and handed over to machinery.

As a result, people were either laid off, or given desk jobs that required even further adjustments to how work was carried out. After all, people weren't used to sitting in the same place for hours on end, let alone in an uncomfortable position. Not to mention, with so many workers being laid off and replaced with machinery, more and more people ended up working to cater to the household needs.

This resulted in more people having to work through inappropriate working conditions, and thus developed health problems that could directly be linked to working.

Modern Day Ergonomics

So, all of that still doesn't quite explain how we got to where we are today.

Even after the industrial revolution, despite the number of people who were replaced by machines, industries were still largely dependent on human labor, and thus sometime around the early 1900s, ergonomics started to take priority. Scientific management was incorporated into a lot of workplaces, where the job process was a focus to make worker efficiency improve.

At the same time, different companies were also trying to make things easier for their workers given the kind of work being done within the specific organization. For example, in Bethlehem Steel, the kind of shovels workers used depended on the kind of material they were moving.

Frank Gilbreth, a pioneer in scientific management, made plenty of jobs more easy and efficient by standardizing processes and tools, which resulted in better output and less fatigue.

But these were still not necessarily focused on what ergonomics looks like today. When you think of ergonomics nowadays, you think of standing desks and lumbar support chairs and whatnot, so how do these fit in?

We're getting there!

After World War II, there was a great level of interest in how humans and machines interacted with each other, especially because so many machines required humans to run them - and other still couldn't carry out their process without a human around to carry out pre-processes.

On top of that, because it was a precarious time in history, there was a lot of concern around how complicated equipment like planes and tanks could be compromised due to confusing design, or anything that puts the worker (or soldier, in this case) in a bad position.

When the human running the machine is compromised, so is the machine - and thus, so is its function.

As a result, the focus of concern in research shifted to worker safety, rather than just efficiency at work. There was plenty of research being carried out in a number of areas, from the muscle force needed to carry out tasks, or cardiovascular responses to labor.

As jobs started to change, research expanded to cover worker safety in these areas as well. It went from analyzing the health of soldiers in airplanes to how an average desk worker works best given the kind of work they have to do and their body's requirements.

This is where we are today! A number of major ergonomic discoveries that are common knowledge to us - such as the importance of lumbar support or neutral wrist position - were discovered during this time. You could say that plenty of people did end up sacrificing their health for these aspects of ergonomics to be discoverable, but it's better late than never!

Research in the area of ergonomics is still ongoing today. Industrial engineers, psychologists, medical experts and many others are still looking into how ergonomics affects people today and how it can be made better.

Plenty of this research is implemented in the furniture we find in stores today - such as Flexispot's collections, where all items are designed to be ergonomic. In the past, the same equipment would serve a more functional purpose, since there wasn't enough knowledge about why ergonomics was so important.

A chair was to be sat on, so it didn't matter what kind of chair it was - but we now know that this is untrue. The kind of chair you use is of utmost importance, precisely because of how long you sit in that chair and how often you interact with it as part of your environment. The chair doesn't just serve its primary function, but does so in a way that keeps worker safety in mind as a priority, rather than as a bonus.

Would we have come to the same conclusions around ergonomics now if history hadn't gone the way it did? Most likely. If only because the number of health problems stemming from poor ergonomics even after we have carried out so much research still remains high enough for it to be a noticeable problem.

On that note, despite how far we've come, there is still a ways to go from here. Who knows what the future of ergonomics will bring us? We'll just have to wait and see.