History of Ergonomics

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 22 September 2016

History of Ergonomics

Ergonomics refers to the study of the interaction between humans and the environment. This study is aimed at understanding mechanisms that are necessary in order to improve the working conditions of humans. Such working conditions include health, performance and comfort. The study is intended at enhancing strategies that optimize the performance of humans at work. This implies that it focuses on techniques that are required to restructure office etiquette and procedures in order to improve the overall productivity. However, ergonomics is not necessarily limited to office environment as it also encompasses other fields of human life.

In a practical perspective, ergonomics is a science concerned with the design of office equipments and artifacts in order to improve the comfort of workers and improve the overall productivity and effectiveness (Gilmore et al. , 1998). An ergonomicist is interested in the study of the interaction between humans and the tools they use in their working environments. The study of ergonomic includes the design of office equipments and space, and the positioning of switches in control rooms. It additionally includes the study of the interaction of the human behavior and their surrounding.

This study originated form Greece where the term ergonomics was derived from ergon meaning work and nomos meaning natural law in Greek. Later on a 19th century sociologist Fredrik Taylor invented the term ‘Scientific management’ to gain maximum results in the factory work. Since then, the practice of ergonomics has tremendously developed over time. As the age of space approaches, new factors continue to emerge such as weightlessness and gravitational force. As the modern world progresses into the future, the field of ergonomics continues to become more sophisticated.

In the United States, an army personnel known as Alphonse Chapanis in 1943 explained that plane accidents caused by pilot errors could be significantly be reduced by using a more simple and rational cockpit instead of the common control layout (Jubel, 2007). Institutional ergonomics is concerned with the socio-technical aspects of the work environment which refers to the amalgamation of structure, process and organizational strategies. Cognitive ergonomics deals with the psychological perspectives of the workplace which involves the study of ideas, opinion and memory.

In academic viewpoint, the study of ergonomics would comprise the knowledge of psychology, engineering and health science. It is therefore necessary for an ergonomicist to possess a bachelors or masters degree in these disciplines. The practice of ergonomics can find use in several aspects of human life such as workplace, home setting, education and sports. The practical study of ergonomics involves the design of working equipments such as computer chairs or keyboards. Other ergonomic discipline involves the study of the environment of the world as is referred to as quantum ergonomics (Gilmore et al. 1998).

History of ergonomics In the United States, the field of ergonomic is believed to have originated during the period of the Second World War (Wickens & Hollands, 2000), even though developments that led to its inception can be traced back to the 20th century. Before the Second World War, the main focus of the work place was designing humans to adapt to the machines used at work basically referred to trial and error method as opposed to designing the machines used at work to match the requirements of humans.

This can be observed form the study conducted by Taylor in which the selection criteria, time and motion studies, training and work rest programs were examined (Taylor, 1911). This study of time and motions was expounded by Frank and Lillian Gilbreth (Gilbreth & Gilbreth, 1917). Majority of the ergonomic developments were necessitated by military requirements. With the commencement of the First World War, which was the first conflict where airplane was used in combat, there emerged the need to adequately train pilots new mechanisms of war.

This necessitated the development of new aviation technologies based on psychology. In addition these trends prompted the emergence of aeromedical research studies. Even though progress was made during this period, the momentum for developing and exploring the discipline further was no achieved since there was lack of vital technological advancements and personnel due to the ongoing Second World War (Meister, 1999). The period between the First World War and the Second World War recorded a significant decline in research, however, some success were realized during this period.

Aeromedical research work did not stop during this time which realized advances in several laboratories built across the United States such as the Brooks Air Force Base located in the city of Texas and the Wright Field situated in Ohio. These laboratories were significant in the development of ergonomics. Their study was focused on identification of attributes of successful pilots and establishing the impacts of environment stressors on the performance and productivity of flights.

Furthermore, the study of anthropometry which is a field concerned with the measurement of the human body was considerably employed in designing airplanes during this period. Other researches were also being done in the private sector such as the automobile behavioral studies (Forbes, 1939). The emergence of the Second World War, and its accompanied needs, formed the driving force behind the development of the field of ergonomics. First, the demand of mobilizing and recruiting substantial numbers of people both men and women made it very difficult for individuals to specialize in a particular job.

Therefore, there was a shift in focus where individual’s capability was designed in order to reduce the negative impacts of their shortcomings. Secondly, the period of the Second World War witnessed the turning point in terms of technological advances. The rapid development of technology outpaced the capability of human to adapt and offset poor designs. This was particularly observed in airplane accidents experienced by vastly trained pilots as a result of problems witnessed with the configuration of the control systems and the instrument displays (Fitts & Jones, 1947).

In addition, enemy targets were unfortunately missed by machine controlled radars (Wickens & Hollands, 2000). Psychologists were employed to experiment and study these emerging issues by employing laboratory mechanisms in order to solve these problems. As a result, the discipline was ergonomics emerged despite the fact that the people involved in its development failed to realize it during this period (Meister, 1999). The two subsequent decades immediate after the Second World War witnessed a growing military research catalyzed largely by the emergence of the cold war.

Military research institutions developed during this war were enlarged and new ones created. The private sectors also continued to develop ergonomic groups mainly in aviation and communication, and digital Industry. The Human Factors Society, a professional body mandated to study ergonomics in the United States was established in 1957 and had an approximate of 90 members then who attended the first inaugural meeting. This name was later abolished in 1992 and replaced with the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society.

Currently, this society boasts of over 4500 people, majority of who are participants in the technical groups established under this society, student bodies and attend the yearly meetings. Beginning in the 1960s, the field of ergonomics continued to expand especially in the previously identified areas. This development expanded into new fields such as computer architecture and software, nuclear weaponry, internet technology among others. In the recent past, new areas of study have emerged which includes neuroergonomics and nanoergonomics (Jubel, 2007).

Conclusion A persistent premise that has been developed over several decades is the ever increasing center of influence that ergonomics has attempted to encompass, as technological advances continue to emerge. What simply began as a mere detachment of experimental psychology focusing on the interaction and relationship of people with machines in the work place has tremendously expanded to cover almost all aspects of interaction of individuals and their environment.

Several researchers have hypothesized about the future of human factors and ergonomics. With the speedy technological advances in such areas as biotechnology and nanotechnology, it would be very exciting to speculate the emerging problems that ergonomics would be called upon to solve in the future (Vicente, 2008). In the today’s modern world, as it was the case during its inception, human factors and ergonomics has still remained a multi disciplinary field of study.

In the United States for instance, this discipline has expanded from behavioral sciences including empirical psychology, and some engineering fields of study. Among the countries in the European block, the discipline of human factors and ergonomics has found its stronghold in physical science disciplines such as human physiology. Currently, people from diverse educational backgrounds and disciplines varying from physiology, engineering and psychology have focused their exclusive skills and knowledge in the study of the interaction and relationship of people with systems.


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  • University/College: University of California

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 22 September 2016

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