The Evolution of Ergonomics

The Evolution of Ergonomics

ancient ergonomic hand tool - the evolution of ergonomics has paralleled the evolution of humanityErgonomics has been defined as the scientific discipline concerned with fitting the job/task to the worker and the history and evolution of ergonomics as a science is a long story. Contrary to popular belief, ergonomics is a field that did not originate in the 1980s due to an influx of injuries in the office work environment. The concept of studying the human body and its relationship to work has been around for a long time. The root of the study is believed to have started with the process of human evolution itself. The importance of a "good fit" between humans and tools was probably realized early in the development of the species. Pre-historic men discovered and engineered many different tools to fit their needs of bare necessities like hunting and eating.

The association between occupations and musculoskeletal injuries was documented centuries ago. Bernardino Ramazzini (1633-1714) wrote about work related complaints that he saw in his medical practice. The term ergonomics however, did not come up until Wojciech Jastrzebowski used the word in 1857 in a philosophical narrative (The Outline of Ergonomics, i.e. Science of Work, Based on the Truths Taken from the Natural Science).

Frank Gilbreth Frank Gilbreth
Lillian Gilbreth Lillian Gilbreth

In the 19th century, industry based production was still largely dependent on human power/motion and ergonomic concepts were developing to improve worker productivity. Fredric Winslow Taylor introduced 'Scientific Management' proposing ways to improve productivity in factories. Frank and Lilian Gilberth built on that principal to develop 'Time and Motion Studies' theory in the 1900s. The theory deals with ways to improve performance by cutting down unnecessary steps and actions while workers performed activities.


Over time, the work revolution changed and advanced as technology increased. The focus of concern has expanded to include worker safety as well as productivity. Research has been done in a variety of areas such as force, awkward postures, and repetition identifying accepted limits or guidelines for limits of work.

Modern application of ergonomics using computer modelling Modern day ergonomics using computer modelling to assess posture. (Graphic: Sebastian Brede, IPH)


Today, the concepts of ergonomics have extended past the workstation and into our general lives. There is a growing demand for consumer goods and electronics that are easy to use and comfortable to handle. This has resulted in more companies including human relationship in product design. There is still a long way to travel in this field. Workplaces are reacting to ergonomics issues but we are starting to see proactive approaches becoming the norm (ergonomic policies). As the working age changes extending beyond the age of 65, there will be a new frontier that EHS professionals will need to understand so that we can ensure the safety and well being of the worker.