An introduction to ergonomics

There may be several ways to describe the word ergonomics, but the one thing most people agree on is its goal: to improve human well-being and maximize human performance. Basically, if you adhere to ergonomic standards, you will ensure the good health of your employees while maintaining high productivity. This can be accomplished by designing products, systems and processes in such a way that they take the relationship between workers and their environment into account.

Over the years, the disciplines contributing to our knowledge of ergonomics has grown to include everything from engineering to psychology and industrial design to biomechanics. It has also grown beyond its initial focus of equipment to encompass three main fields of research:

● Physical ergonomics: concerned with human anatomy; it is used in the design of products. Because Nova-Link sells sit-to-stand ergonomic desks, our blog Dunwin Drive will mainly focus on physical ergonomics.
● Cognitive ergonomics: concerned with mental processes such as perception, memory, reasoning and motor responses.
● Organisational ergonomics: concerned with the optimization of socio-technical systems such as a company’s organizational structures, policies and processes, communication and team work.

While the word ergonomics is relatively new, the idea behind it has been around since Ancient Greece. Even cave dwellers before that tried to make items that were safe and easy to use, but it was not until Hippocrates wrote a document called About the Hospital that the first ideas of ergonomics were put down on paper. Hippocrates, who lived between 460 and 370 BC, wrote about the ways a surgeon’s office should be set up, including the arrangement of his tools: “He should also attend to the patient’s position and the surgical instruments”, “the surgeon may stand or be seated, in a posture comfortable for him and dependent on the point of operation and light.”

In 1700 AD, Italian physician Bernardino Ramazzini wrote a book called De Morbis Artificum Diatriba (Diseases of Workers), which led to him being called the “father of occupational medicine”. Each chapter of his book contained a description of a disease related to a particular work activity; for example, metal mining workers often had respiratory illnesses, but also skeletal disorders because of bad posture and the use of heavy equipment. Ramazzini would visit places of employment, observe the workers, and disucuss their illnesses with them. He came to the conclusion that not all diseases and injuries were related to the working environment (such as chemical or physical agents), but some were caused by repeated movements, irregular motions and bad postures.

In the mid-eighteenth century, the Industrial Revolution began and society’s focus shifted from agrarian and home-made products to industrial and machine manufacturing. As heavy machines were being developed, design was taken into consideration but at the expense of workers; mechanical inventions were meant to promote speed and efficiency, not comfort and safety.

It was at the end of the Industrial Revolution that the term ergonomics first appears. It combines the Greek words ergon (work) and nomos (natural law) and was first used in 1857 by the Polish scientist Wojciech Jastrzebowski who wrote a paper called The Outline of Ergonomics; i.e. Science of Work, Based on the Truths Taken from the Natural Science. In the paper, he discussed the science of nature: how can one work according to nature instead of in contradiction to the laws of nature. (Anyone else have any flashbacks to My Big Fat Greek Wedding with that one?)

This paper was the beginning of a long line of research into how a worker’s relationship with his tools could maximize profits. Frederick Winslow Taylor wanted to improve the efficiency of the worker by improving the efficiency of the task. For example, reducing the size and weight of a shovel would triple the amount of coal a worker could shovel. Taylor’s Scientific Management study was followed by the Gilbreths’ Time and Motion study; they searched for techniques that would help reduce the amount of unnecessary movements required to perform a task.

The word ergonomics as we know it today was introduced in the English lexicon in 1949 by psychologist Hywel Murrell at the Admirality, aka the British Navy. He used the word to describe studies he had been engaged in during and after the war, which lead to the establishment of the Ergonomics Society in the UK and the writing of several books including Men and Machines. WWII was actually fundamental in the establishment of ergonomics as a science. A US army officer called Alphonse Chapanis, who would later be coined the father of ergonomics, came up with a way to reduce pilot errors by replacing confusing designs in the cockpits with more logical controls. He could not understand why aircrafts in perfect conditions being flown by the best pilots kept on crashing, so he figured out it had to do with the way the cockpit was set up. It is at this point that the US became interested in ergonomics as well, but they started calling it human factors. While the words are basically interchangeable these days, human factors was first described as a physical or cognitive property of an individual or social behavior specific to humans that may influence the functioning of technological systems.

Over the years, equipment has become more and more complex, and employers realized that the benefit of these sophisticated machines would not reach its full potential unless employees are able to use the equipment as it is intended to be used. Proper design can help prevent injuries, but education is just as important. Because companies often focused too much on the bottom line and not so much on their employees, Congress created OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Act) in 1970 to educate people and safeguard the safety of employees in all fields. Ergonomics forms a main component of OSHA, but it also includes information about Worker Rights, Employer Responsibilities, Laws and Regulations…

Dunwin Drive will focus on ergonomic design, which relates to (mainly) Nova-Link products that are designed for efficiency and comfort in the working environment. It is what we most often associate with the word ergonomic: a product that is easy to use, safe and comfortable. It also applies to services and processes, so the way you set up your desk and office can be ergonomic as well. Do you have any favorite ergonomic products, or any tips and tricks that make your day at the office more comfortable?


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