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The history of ergonomics

Download PDF Ergonomics is mainly known as the science of improving workplaces to enable workers to use their computers in a safe and productive way. But how and when did ergonomics, and with it the scientific study of mankind in relation to his environment, actually begin?

The first publications about work-related physical symptoms date back several centuries. The word ‘ergonomics’ first featured in a philosophical story, The Outline of Ergonomics, i.e. Science of Work, Based upon the truths drawn from the Science of Nature, written by Wojciech Jastrzebowski in 1857. The first ergonomic concepts to help workers operate more productively were published at the beginning of 1900. At that time, industry still demanded a great deal of physical exertion from workers. Scientific Management, a method that makes employees more efficient by improving the work process, subsequently became increasingly popular.

Research into the physical abilities of the human body (or rather the lack thereof) came about as a consequence of military necessity. Although the first research was initiated sometime around World War I, Wickens & Hollands (2000) consider World War II as the real beginning of the study of ergonomics. At the time, the main focus was on improving machines like aircraft. Experimental psychologists studied aircraft crashes and came to the conclusion that many of the accidents occurred because of illogical or poor design concepts, that is as a result of the limitations of the human body. This was the beginning of the study of human capabilities and ergonomics.

From the 1960s, the discipline extended to computer equipment, followed by the study of computer software in the 70s and later also of the internet and automation (1990), and of adaptive technology in 2000. While researchers in the USA focused mainly on the behavioral sciences, such as experimental psychology and technology, the emphasis in Europe has been on human physiology. Today, the science of ergonomics is a combination of various disciplines, including psychology, engineering and physiology.

When we nowadays talk about ergonomics, we are no longer so much referring to problems and physical complaints as to solutions. The actual playing field of ergonomics has become broader than the mere prevention of health problems. It is now more a question of aligning the human being to the execution of his tasks. Our ergonomist Hugo Bos asserts that if this is done well, it invariably yields structural time gains and higher levels of productivity.

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