The Integration of Ergonomics Into the Workplace
For many people, hearing the word “ergonomics” probably makes them think of high-tech, cutting edge designs. And while it is true that today’s ergonomics is based on the very best science, and continues to modernize, the idea of adjusting equipment to the worker has been developing since the beginning of man.
As far back as the caveman days, evidence has shown that our ancestors were creating tools to make tasks easier. Back then they used tools crafted from stone or bones, but the idea was the same – find ways to make work more easily fit into what humans can do. Today that idea has evolved into designing work space equipment which is the easiest to use while protecting the health of the human body.
Start of Work-Related Injuries
The 18th century brought the American Revolution, the steam engine, and the first known recordings on the physical impact of work. You’d probably be surprised to know that in the early 1700’s, Bernardino Ramazzini, known as the “father of occupational medicine,” observed that many worker ailments could be caused by “irregular motions and prolonged postures.” He noticed the workers’ ailments in his medical practice, and began to routinely ask patients about their work environment. He even studied weightlifting and other preventative measures for workers.
The Industrial Revolution took the idea of creating tools to make work easier even further, with things like the spinning jenny, which produced yarn to make cloth. Or rolling mills, which flattened iron ore into sheets of metal. Both of these are examples of what was the driving motivation behind ergonomics at the time – how to improve the work process.
Creation of Ergonomics
The actual word “ergonomics” was created in 1857 by Wojciech Jastrzebowski. He placed great emphasis on the importance of work, and applied several disciplines to the study of making work easier. He wrote, “only through such application of all our forces united that they may be mutual supports one unto another, not only making our work lighter but also bringing us greater profit.” It seemed that he was onto something!
As we headed into the 1900’s, and the Second Industrial Revolution, things really began to develop. At that time, work was still largely dependent on human power, and experts began developing tools and methods as ways to improve worker efficiency. Frederick W. Taylor was one of these experts who spent time evaluating jobs to determine the best way the work could be performed. For instance, he helped substantially increase production at Bethlehem Steel just by matching the type of shovel used to the material being moved. Next, factory machinery and equipment began to be built with design considerations. But while these modernization's were improvements, most of these changes were to increase productivity, not necessarily to ease the physical strain on the human body.
Taking Humans Into Account
World War II was the beginning of the real study of what we now call ergonomics – the physical abilities of humans. During the war, experts were puzzled why even the most talented pilots would routinely crash. As they studied these airplane crashes and began to think about how to improve the aircraft, scientists discovered that many crashes were due to poor design that did not take into account limitations of the human body. They began to instead design the machines to fit the size of the soldier, and to install controls in a logical, functional organization.
After World War II, worker safety and productivity also began to be taken into account. Experts begin researching how much muscle force was needed for manual labor, the impact lifting heavy objects has on the spine, cardiovascular response when performing tasks, and the perceived maximum load that could be carried, pulled, or pushed.
They also began considering other human factors, such as behavior, decision-making, organizational design, and more. This became known as cognitive ergonomics or human factors, while the physical attributes of the workplace were known as industrial ergonomics.
In the 1960’s a whole new world needing ergonomic design opened up -- computer hardware and software. Monitors, keyboards, mice all needed to be designed for optimal use by humans. And that has expanded to applying ergonomics to things like automation and adaptive technology.
Today the study of ergonomics is a combination of psychology, engineering, and physiology, needing a very broad range of experts – everything from industrial engineers, industrial psychologists, occupational medicine physicians, to safety engineers. Professions that use ergonomics include architects, occupational therapists, physical therapists, occupational medicine nurses, and even insurance loss control specialists. We’ve come a long way from stone tools!
Now, nearly every aspect of modern life includes some level of ergonomic design. Everything from the placement of the gas and brake pedals in your car to the handle on your kitchen knife has an ergonomic basis. And office equipment is at the top of the list, which makes sense considering the amount of time we spend working. We can sit in our ergonomic chairs using pens, keyboards, desks, and more that have been designed for optimal efficiency by humans. These advancements let us lead happier, healthier, and more productive lives.
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