A New Way to Solve Old Problems: The History of Ergonomics

Human Factors and Ergonomics is about the laws of work. The name may be relatively new, but ergonomic-related problems as we know them today have been around for ages.

400 BC – Ancient Greek civilization used what we now consider ergonomic principles in the design of tools, jobs, and workplaces. Archeologists have found drawings and paintings of chairs with contoured back rests and hand tools that resemble designs still used today. Hippocrates (460 BC to 375 BC) also documented some of the earliest thoughts regarding workflow for improved efficiency and efficacy. Specifically, he wrote of how a surgeon’s workplace should be designed and how the tools he uses should be arranged.

1700s – Italian physician Bernardino Ramazzini (1633 – 1714) wrote a medical journal about complains from his patients titled, 'De Morbis Artificum,’ which translates to, ‘Diseases of Workers.’ The journal detailed a variety of injuries such as weaver’s bottom, writer’s cramp, telegrapher’s wrist, and housemaid’s knee, outlining how these injuries relate to working environments and the occupations of his patients.

1890s – Frederick Winslow Taylor is credited in the development of scientific management. His main goal was to improve efficiency in the workplace. Sounds like ergonomics, doesn’t it? He used methods of analyzing workflow and measuring units of work and time. In one of his most famous studies, Taylor analyzed the process of shoveling coal. Through meticulous observation, Taylor determined the most effective load was 21.5 pounds and had different sized shovels made to hold 21.5 pounds of specific materials. Through reducing the size and weight of the shovels used, the amount of coal being shoveled was tripled, increasing productivity and also reducing work related injuries. In another famous study, he looked at loading pig iron into a rail car, breaking the job into the smallest constituent movements, and timing each movement. He redesigned the job to reduce motions and error, increasing worker output from 12 to 47 tons per day. This process may sound familiar, as it is similar to how we conduct ergonomic evaluations today. However, Taylor was motivated by productivity, not necessarily the welfare of workers. He picked his strongest crew member to set productivity standards, which set the bar too high for the typical worker.

1867 – The Chicago meatpacking industry begins utilizing one of the first industrial assembly lines in the United States. Workers would stand at a fixed station and complete one task and a pulley system would bring the meat to each worker.

1900s – Lillian and Frank Gilbreth began running ‘Time and Motion Studies,’ which examined techniques to reduce the number of motions required to perform a given task successfully. In one example, brick layers were able to increase productivity from 120 to 350 bricks laid in one hour due to reductions in the number of motions involved per brick lay using scaffolding to optimize worksurface heights. They invented the concept of therbligs, the basic elements involved in completing a manual task or operation, such as grasp, position, rest, and impact. These 18 elements are still used today in time and motion studies to decompose a task for strain analysis. Embedded in history, Therblig is Gilbreth spelled backwards.

1913 – The first assembly line at the Ford plant in Michigan was introduced. These updates led to increased efficiency, but negative impacts on job satisfaction. Sped up processes allowed people to make more money, but repetitive jobs eventually led to repetitive strain injuries.

1914 – 1918 – During WWI, ergonomics efforts shifted to the design of aircraft controls and displays, the effects of altitude, and other environmental factors on the pilot.

1915 – The Health of Munitions Workers Committee was formed in the United Kingdom to address workers’ problems during WWI. It became the Industrial Fatigue Research Board in 1918 and considered issues like fatigue and productivity. In 1929, the group widened their scope to include health and industrial efficiency and became known as the Health Research Board.

1920s – The Hawthorne Studies at Western Electric Company in the US showed psychosocial factors influence worker performance.

1939 – 1945 – During WWII, interested expanded into complex machines and weaponry and the increased demand on operators’ cognition. The design of equipment had to take into account human limitations and take advantage of human capabilities. The decision-making, attention, situational awareness, and hand-eye coordination of the machine operator became key in the success or failure of a task.

1947 – Fitts and Jones studied the most effective configuration of control knobs to be used in aircraft cockpits. Perhaps you’ve heard of Fitts’ Law? The law states the amount of time required for a person to move a pointer to a target area is a function of the distance of the target divided by the size of the target. The longer the distance and smaller the target, the longer it takes. Fitts’ Law is sometimes used in modern research to measure efficacy of one computer input device as compared to another.

1949 – A meeting of physiologists and psychologists at The Admiralty in the United Kingdom coined the term ergonomics from the Greek roots ergon (function, task, work) and nomos (law, custom). Later that year, this same body of scientists formed the Ergonomics Research Society (ERS), the first such professional body in the world. Today, this body is known as the Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors.

1957 - The Human Factors and Ergonomics Society was formed in the United States.

1970s – The field of cognitive ergonomics officially took shape with the advancement of computers and software. Industrial designers began to develop an interest in ergonomic principles, and two critical books by Henry Dreyfuss, Measure of Man, and Niels Diffrient, Humanscale, were published. These books presented complicated discoveries of ergonomics in a way that was accessible to other designers. The 1970s also ushered in the realization that even with the best designed human interactions with machines and equipment, environment and software, there could still be problems with the overall system or organization. The study of macro-ergonomics was born.

1980s – The computer became an office staple and computer-related injury reports were on the rise. The computer revolution also developed a public consciousness of ergonomics.

What’s next in the timeline? Wearables, exoskeletons, voice to text, UX design – leave your thoughts in the comment section below.

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