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A Brief History of Ergonomics

01 June 2022

While it might be tempting to see ergonomics as a purely modern term and way of doing things, its history stretches back much further. Humans have, for as long as we can possibly remember, always sought to improve on methods, whether it’s how we hold an axe, sow a field or build a house.

We have always strived to make things easier for ourselves and while ergonomics in its more modern incarnation often focuses on office equipment, methods of working, and environmental factors at work, in a way, we’ve been working on our ergonomics for thousands of years.

What exactly is ergonomics  

Ergonomics is all about finding efficiency in how we work often through trial and error. Today this is usually concerned with office equipment and the working environment as a way of counteracting or diminishing the effects of certain medical ailments.

The word ergonomics comes from the Greek word ergon, meaning work or labour, and nomos, meaning natural laws and was coined by a Polish scholar, Wojciech Jastrzębowski, in 1857, but only become widely known when his book, An outline of Ergonomics or the Science of work, was translated into English in 1997.

Ergonomic developments

While Jastrzębowski’s work would take some time to make its way into the mainstream, it was in the early 20th Century when the first concepts about helping workers operate more productively.

Frederick Taylor’s 1909 book The Principles of Scientific Management, which set out his theories on optimising and simplifying jobs, became hugely successful and remains the cornerstone of much of modern working methods.

Things took another huge leap thanks to the two World Wars that tore much of the world apart during the first half of the 20th Century. Intensive research into air crashes began to revolutionise how Air Forces were run and how pilots were trained. It may seem like an odd place to start, but World War II is widely seen as the start of modern ergonomics.    

Modern Ergonomics

As the computer age began, ergonomics took on a much broader spectrum of focus. The International Ergonomics Association (IEA) was founded in 1959 and continues to this day to provide excellent information relating to ergonomics as well as events and conferences around the world.   

Gradually throughout the 1960s and 1970s, terms such as health and safety emerged, while general values relating to employee welfare also blossomed. The manic work patterns of the past were slowly let go, at least in the western developed world, while this period also saw the first examples of training manuals relating to on-the-job techniques.

Today ergonomics is commonly associated with workplace practices relating to safety and employee welfare but covers a variety of fields, from work-related, physical, and psycho-social to technological.

Almost all of the products or equipment that we use for work-related reasons are now designed with ergonomics in mind to some degree or another. Office chairs now come with carefully crafted lumbar supports, adjustable headrests, and a breathable mesh back to keep you cool in hotter weather. Keyboards and mice have been completely redesigned to provide the minimum stress on the body as possible, while even the lighting and work environment have been carefully tweaked to provide the most pleasing, and productive environment.      

Ergonomics in our homes

Ergonomics has now reached all corners of our lives and whereas once it would have been constrained to the workplace, we now give considerable thought when it comes to our homes. Much of this can be attributed to changing work methods and the increasing number of us working from home.

The Covid-19 pandemic brought this into sharp focus as millions who once made the daily slog to the office found themselves having to work, often using equipment that few had ever envisioned long periods of work at.

The various lockdowns that the UK experienced saw a huge rise in the sales of height-adjustable desks or desk converters that allowed traditional tables to be used for standing or simply raise the eye line level you’re working at. Just ten years ago, neither of these two products would have seen a great deal of popularity, but an uptick in the understanding of musculoskeletal pain and what we can do to counteract it has transformed how we work.

And that’s just the start. Active seating is following close behind, while desk bikes are currently the newest and most radical challenge to traditional methods of working.       

Conclusion

Ergonomics has evolved rapidly over the last one hundred years. The focus on providing more efficient soldiers during World War II has gradually morphed into our current understanding of ergonomics that has now spread from the workplace into the home.

Now that we lie on the cusp of yet another era of great change, with exoskeletons, wearable sensors, computer vision, artificial intelligence, and virtual and augmented reality all waiting in the wings, it’s difficult to predict where and how far ergonomics is going to go. It’s not inconceivable that one day we all wear small sensors on our bodies that can tell us when any slight deviation from the ideal method occurs and how we should correct it. The search for the perfect way of working continues.