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Ergonomics: A History

As all sciences, the root of the study of ergonomics is also believed to have started with the process of human evolution itself. The quest to search for the natural fit between the humans and their tools is assumed to have started in the early stages of the development of the human species. Pre-historic men discovered and engineered many different tools to fit their needs of bare necessities like hunting and eating.

The study of creation of everyday instruments like hammers and axes followed as we developed from century to century. With time the tools were engineered with understanding and study to make them work better for us. Later in the industrial age, people invented more sophisticated machines and equipment to improve working mechanism to yield better product output.

The relationship between the factors of human occupational injuries and engineering of work tools is found to have been documented long time ago. It proves that work in the field of ergonomics had been started centuries ago. The term ergonomics however, came up in 1857 in a philosophical writings of Wojciech Jastrzebowski. In 19th century, 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 unnecessarily steps and improving tools in a factory production line.

World War II is said to be an important catalyst in the rapid growth of the study of ergonomics. It incited greater interest in human-machine interest. The period saw the development of complex machinery and weaponry. People understood more clearly the importance of the role played by factors like decision making, situational awareness and hand-eye coordination of the workers or machine operators, for the successful conclusion of a given job. A lieutenant in the US army, Alphonse Chapanis, found out in 1943, that human error in air traffic accidents could be reduced to a great extent by changing the control panel design to make it simple, logical and hence, easy to operate.

With that started the research on relationship between muscle force and manual task, cardiovascular reaction in heavy work performance, maximum work load that can be carried out etc.

The field of study grew further in later centuries to encompass human attributes like decision making process, design of the organization, design-perception relation and human behavior. These came to be known as the human factor, or cognitive ergonomics. Industrial ergonomics was coined to refer to the field of study involving physical aspect of the work space.

As we reach this day and age, ergonomics is a complex science of a combination of physics, biology, psychology, engineering, design, management etc. Experts working in the further development of the subject are the student of all these different field of studies. It involves understanding ways to provide greater safety, health and comfort in the work space. The discipline works to study and improve the techniques in making human performance better and yielding optimum output by re-structuring and rearranging of office equipment, furniture, process, management style etc.

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