The first issue of the journal Ergonomics in 1957 explained its title was derived from the Greek for "the customs, habits or laws of work" and was coined "to denote an approach to the problems of human work and control operations". During the Second World War, earlier approaches of trying to optimise the armed services' performance by picking and training recruits to match the demands of the equipment shifted to considering how equipment could be designed to match human capabilities.
The definition on the website of the UK Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors says the discipline "brings together knowledge from other subjects such as anatomy and physiology, psychology, engineering and statistics to ensure that designs complement the strengths and abilities of people and minimise the effects of their limitations".
Early workers, from our neolithic ancestors to 18th century skilled artisans, were their own ergonomists -- making spears or workbenches to the specification that suited them. The industrial revolution sought to make production more efficient, but at a cost. The spinning jenny was invented to make more yarn more quickly -- but it didn't consider the harm to operators. Labour was plentiful; a damaged worker could be thrown out alongside a damaged cog.
The ergonomics of the early 20th century sought to make machines work with people but only as far as necessary to increase productivity
The ergonomics of the early 20th century sought to make machines work with people but only as far as necessary to increase productivity. In the 1900s, Frederick Taylor's "scientific management method" drew on ergonomic principles to propose furnishing different types of shovels for different tasks at the Bethlehem Steel works in Pennsylvania, US, and measured productivity improvements, but didn't consider musculoskeletal health.
From the 1950s, safety professionals looked to ergonomics for help, but with a focus on those affected by work rather than the workers themselves. Articles in the first edition of Applied Ergonomics in 1970 show a safety focus on environments such as air traffic control and nuclear power stations, where a badly-designed user interface could cause a worker to do something that harmed thousands of people.
Now, ergonomics is seen in OSH management, principally in relation to musculoskeletal health. Ergonomists are commissioned to make manual handling tasks easier to perform, and adjust chairs and keyboards to make computer users more comfortable. But a narrow approach misses what ergonomists can do.
In 1968, when the Post Office was responsible for the growing telecommunications infrastructure, it formed a human factors group to consider questions such as the optimum height of pay phones, and how much faster people could make a phone call using push buttons rather than dials. The engineers in the group understood the broader technical aspects and determined that, though keypad phones were faster, there was no point in issuing them until the technology in the telephone exchanges could match the keying speeds.
The International Ergonomics Association (IEA) defines ergonomics as "the scientific discipline concerned with the understanding of interactions among humans and other elements of a system -¦ to optimise human wellbeing and overall system performance".
The Association of Canadian Ergonomists borrows the IEA definition, listing tools, equipment, products, tasks, organisation, technology, and environment as examples of system elements.
The Health and Safety Executive publication Ergonomics and Human Factors at Work explains ergonomics "aims to make sure that tasks, equipment, information and the environment fit each worker". It also points out that environment comprises not just lighting and noise, but the social surroundings, including team structures and leadership style.
Organisations can afford to buy new computer mice, but seldom contemplate procuring a better software system or changing workplace culture. When they engage an ergonomist they don't expect to be told that the problem is the culture that discourages people from taking lunch breaks.
For ergonomists to deliver full value, their clients must make a business case to give them the scope not just to tell them about furniture but to advise on everything relating to "the customs, habits or laws of work". The business case has to show that applying ergonomic principles can design a manual labouring task to avoid musculoskeletal problems while enhancing the efficiency of the operation and can help choose vehicles that enable drivers to improve fuel economy while preventing fatigue.
The judge in a more recent criminal case (R v Chargot, 2008) said employers did not need to consider “trivial or fanciful” risks. Even where prevention would be reasonably practicable, an employer could not be expected to protect against unforeseeable harm.
Words: Bridget leathleyIn traditional business practice, a cost-benefit analysis would weigh one set of costs against another, giving both equal value – a proportion factor of one. However, if lives rest on one side of the scales, the balance is skewed in favour of safety and a disproportion, or even a gross disproportion, is expected.
Words: Keeley Downey, Louis Wustemann“I keep asking myself what wellbeing is,” said Dame Carol Black, launching this year’s Health and Wellbeing at Work conference in Birmingham and perhaps echoing a question that has occurred to many OSH practitioners.Black, the government’s senior policy adviser on work and health, told delegates: “Views vary, but please don’t medicalise it. Wellbeing is not the same as health issues, though good health can be part of wellbeing.”
Industry experts will assess how human factors can affect piloting, aircraft engineering and air traffic control performance both positively and negatively.Representatives from British Airways, Virgin Atlantic Airways, NATS, Boeing Defence UK and the CHIRP Charitable Trust are among those due to speak at the conference, to be hosted by the IOSH Aviation and Aerospace Group.The group feel that more can be done within the aviation industry when it comes to gaining a better understanding of human factors.
Dave Marsh, industrial hygiene coordinator at ExxonMobil Fawley, headed a strand on electromagnetic fields (EMFs) at the conference in Glasgow from 25-28 April. The topic choice was prompted by the impending implementation of new UK regulations on workplace EMF monitoring and control.
While it is no longer acceptable to assume that all men are stronger than all women, or that people of one colour have different personalities to those of another colour it is, it appears, entirely acceptable to declare that anyone born since 1980 is addicted to social media and will ‘challenge traditional hierarchical HSE systems’, while anyone born before that date is a luddite with no understanding of the modern age, but will be quite happy to toe the line.
A joint report from two United Nations (UN) agencies includes measures that employers should put in place, including providing effective OSH support, so that workers’ health is adequately protected while they undertake teleworking.