The Evolution of Ergonomics

By Leamon, Tom B. | Risk Management, September 1995 | Go to article overview
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The Evolution of Ergonomics

Leamon, Tom B., Risk Management

The desire to optimize work performance has led to many changes in workplace design. Evidence dates back centuries to the evolution of the scythe handle and the development of the yoke for carrying loads over long distances. The term "ergonomics" itself, however, was not coined until shortly after World War II, when a group of British naval scientists used it to describe the anatomical, physiological and psychological knowledge that was beginning to be applied to humans and their relationship to their work environments.

Since then, concerns over workplace injuries and productivity levels have led to the development of ergonomics as a scientific discipline. Today there are 33 ergonomic societies throughout the world, including organizations in many countries such as Japan, Germany, China and India.

Ergonomic research can be used to redesign workplace equipment so it corresponds to the physical needs of workers; rather than requiring workers to adapt to inadequately designed environments. Early developments arose from military and aerospace studies demonstrating that human beings, when unreasonably called upon to adapt to a work environment, will experience performance impairments, including reduced productivity, an increase in errors, decreased work quality and fewer achievements of work objectives.

To be effective, ergonomic research, and the solutions (or "interventions") that arise from it, must be based on sound science. However, there are many misconceptions about the implications of this research. Although the science of ergonomics has revealed a wealth of knowledge for improving productivity while reducing health and safety risks, certain myths can lead corporations to misunderstand the nature of ergonomic injuries and interventions.


A prime example of this misunderstanding concerns the allegedly high incidence of cumulative trauma to workers' upper extremity (i.e., the arms and hands), which can result in repetitive strain injuries (RSIs) such as carpal tunnel syndrome. According to studies conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), cumulative trauma of the upper extremity amounts to only 4 percent of lost time incidents in the United States. The belief that RSIS are a widespread phenomenon is due to statistical irregularities in the BLS studies. Certainly, the painful symptoms that appear in workers arise from poor workplace design, but these symptoms are rarely manifestations of actual injury or disease. In fact, these symptoms usually can be ameliorated through ergonomic interventions such as improved tools and workplace redesigns.

Misconceptions concerning RSIS have resulted in federal and state efforts to regulate corporate work environments, including a proposed ergonomic standard developed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and VDT/cumulative Trauma standard promulgated in California and other states. (Incidentally, both standards have been widely criticized for their lack of validated, rigorous and quantitative research.) False beliefs concerning RSIs have also served the interests of many suppliers of "ergonomically correct" products and services. Unfortunately, since a number of these products are effectively useless--and often unduly expensive--they can lead corporations to regard all ergonomic interventions as a cost burden of questionable value. This is unfortunate, since effective ergonomic interventions, although requiring initial costs, can be used for great benefit.

For example, many organizations in Scandinavia, Europe and the Far East have used ergonomic interventions to increase productivity and achieve quality improvements. In Germany, the International Research Association for Newspaper Technology collated a massive amount of data on the use and design of visual display terminals that have been adopted in many standards throughout the world. In Britain, a team of 26 ergonomists helped the nation's coal mining industry in managing the effects of high thermal conditions on miners and in designing safer, more productive mining machines.

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