The History and Present of Ergonomics

Derived from the Greek words “ergon”, meaning to work, and “nomos”, meaning natural law, ergonomics is a word well known to office workers everywhere. Though the practice is known primarily as being responsible for the proliferation of overly complicated office chairs, bouncy-ball seats and sit/stand desks, even the ancient humans had their adaptations – the best handle for a stone tool, the best way to move boulders and rocks to build structures. The real study of human factors design and ergonomics started up in the mid-1800s, got off the ground during World War I, and banked left in the 1940s.

The History and Present of Ergonomics

As far back as the mid-1700s, the desire for greater efficiency in the production of goods prompted the unstoppable rise of machines and assembly lines. The focus in the early days of mechanisation was on how to make humans more efficient in their dealings with the machinery and, thus, more efficient workers. The start of World War I and the entry of the aeroplane onto the military stage prompted the need for pilot training methods and engineering design that would support military aims.

There was less of a need between the wars, but by the time World War II had arrived, complicated machinery was a fact of life, and it was at this time that the thinking began to change. Large numbers of people were needed to support the war effort and there was little time for training. Add to this the advances in technology and it was clear that the machines themselves needed to fit their users, and not the other way around. Especially in aircraft and other complicated systems, the clear purpose and use of controls, buttons and levers was key to safety.

This time can be seen as significant to the study of human factors in the design not only of machines but also of systems and work processes, as more and more jobs became office-based rather than factory-based. Today’s extensive work in user interface and user experience can trace its beginnings back to the need for good machine design.

In our physical environments, the focus continues to be on how workers can do their jobs efficiently without pain or injury. The issue of how much sitting people are now doing during the workday has become a hot topic, and the evidence is mounting for how bad it is for our health, so a whole new area of design has opened up for sit/stand desks. Increasing our movement and blood flow during the day has many benefits, but standing all the time is not the answer, as it also results in slouching, craning our necks, and such. As with most things in life, moderation is the way and flexibility is key.

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