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The Anatomy of Ergonomics

Building Blocks

You are obviously familiar with the concept, ergonomics. You know it's something that should be taken into account in your workplace and preferably also in your own home. But what's really behind the science of ergonomics and when and why did we start worrying about good ergonomics?

The Origin of Ergonomics

Ergonomics is a Greek neologism, consisting of "ergon" meaning work and "nomos" meaning laws. The origin of the word can be traced back to 1857 when it was first used by the Polish scientist Wojciech Jastrzębowski. In the broadest sense, ergonomics thus has to do with the interior design of the workplace – both the physical environment, such as chairs, tables and screens, and the mental environment. Disciplines such as anatomy, physiology, sociology and organizational science all form part of the basis of the concept of ergonomics.

In general, ergonomics is about making people and physical elements work together in the best way possible, because we need a lot of physical work tools and we are only getting more and more tools. This hasn’t always been the case, and it wasn’t until the industrialization, which demanded higher productivity, that people began to think about ergonomics. In the 1950s, Danish masseuses, for example, fought to introduce the so-called occupational gymnastics during working hours as part of the prevention of occupational injuries due to exhausting and repetitive work processes. However, it wasn’t until the 1960s that the working environment really came into focus in Scandinavia. At first, the attention was put on varying the tasks in the factories, but as more of the work moved in front of a screen, so did ergonomics.

Read more about the interplay of work environment, work area and workstation


An International Perspective

Ergonomics concerns both the prevention and treatment of work-related disorders, but European countries differ a lot in how much emphasis they put on ergonomics and the tools in the workplace.

The Nordic countries have come a long way in the field ergonomics and have a long tradition of focusing on preventive measures. In particular, the countries have realized that occupational injuries are difficult to treat and that prevention therefore is extremely important. For this reason, they carry out annual workplace assessments and name “safety representatives” among the employees.


Back to the Present

"Modern Ergonomics" is a branch of science that studies how the body functions and how to adapt a workplace environment to the human body's natural movements. The opposite – when the body has to adapt to the work environment and its design – is an out-dated approach to ergonomics. Modern Ergonomics was born in the mid-1970s and to this day still influences the design and production of furniture. Particularly office furniture is characterized by the increasing focus of ergonomics in today’s society. The rapid development of technology also has a major influence on Modern Ergonomics, making it easier for companies to meet the needs of employees.

Depending on the industry, the concept of ergonomics can be perceived very differently; If you work in an office and with a PC, emphasis is usually put on the interior design of your office space and the office furniture. This also applies to employees in the health and education sector, whose work is now predominantly sedentary work in front of a screen. However, when it comes to the more physical work at a factory or harder outdoor work, focus is largely on varying the physical working positions and proper lifting techniques and the tools relevant to that.

Regardless of industry, the result is a happier and healthier employee, leading to more productivity and fewer healthcare costs for the company.

Mini Encyclopedia of Ergonomics:

MSD: Musculoskeletal Disorder (Muscle and Bone Disorders)

RSI: Repetitive Strain Injuries

Prophylactic ergonomic work = preventive ergonomic work

EGA = Unilaterally Repeated Work

OHS = Occupational Health Service


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