From The Ergoweb® Learning Center

Revisiting Our Roots

We spin around in ergonomic chairs, with our hands on ergonomic mice, pens, and keyboards, using ergonomic handles on vegetable peelers and can openers to make dinner more comfortable, even driving ergonomic cars with options like gas and brake pedals that rise to meet our feet. In a society where ergonomics is as much an advertising catch phrase replacing the old “state-of-the-art” and “cutting edge,” as it is a working concept or a regulatory requirement, sometimes it’s hard to un-blur the line between the ergo-speak. But looking back at the roots of the science, and ergonomics is a science, the lines become clearer.  The hard part is judging which side of the line is best.

Ergonomics itself is nothing new. But back in 1857 when Polish scholar, Wojciech Jastrzebowski coined the word “ergonomics” from its Greek roots meaning work (ergon) and principal or law (nomos), work was, well, a little different.
It was during the heyday of the industrial revolution.  A society of farmers had traded in their hoes for 14-hour days in factories, growing iron and steel in lieu of carrots and potatoes.  Jastrzebowski, a professor of botany, physics, zoology, and horticulture, as well as a philosopher, took theories on Ergonomics from what he knew best – science – and he applied them to work. He began his justification for ergonomics with this statement:

Hail! Thou Great unbounded idea of work! God, Who. . . cursed mankind and subjected him to work. . . . He who complains against his work knoweth not life; work is an uplifting force by which all things may be moved.  Repose is death, and work is life.

Jastrzebowski’s multi-part publication, An Outline of Ergonomics, Or the Science of Work Based Upon the Truths Drawn from the Science of Nature, was infused with references to God, the Bible and Science, a curious, almost volatile mix, by today’s standards.  But he was on to something – that human work is a good thing and that studying and improving work is even better.

. . .only through such application of all our forces united that they may be mutual supports one unto another, not only making our work lighter but also bringing us greater profit. . .

Taken one step at a time, Jastrzebowski’s reasoning still holds true.  Big business or small employer, the modern work world has a bottom line – profit.  Make human work easier and more productive and it will increase the wealth and well being of the individual, the company, and the society.  Inarguable.  Not even a choice, just good business sense.

. . . people who are badly educated or not organized, in other words, whose vital forces have been neglected or are badly managed, very often not only bring no profit or gain, but are even harmful as regards the common good.

The vital forces Jastrzebowski concerns his studies with are four-fold – physical, including motor or kinetic, labor or toil; aesthetic meaning emotional or sensory, entertainment or pastime; rational like intellectual thinking or reasoning; and moral, as in spiritual, devotion or dedication.  According to Jastrzebowski, if we mismanage ourselves or others, not only will we achieve little or no gain, we may very well cause bigger problems.

Ergonomics is more than a regulatory guideline or requirement.  It’s like the basic principal behind the most successful customer service – happy workers make happy customers.  Staff a resort full of employees who like what they’re doing, who are comfortable with their work, their environment, and who feel rewarded and valued in their job, and that attitude will transfer itself to repeat guests. Staff a resort full of disgruntled workers whose only motivation to stay on is the paycheck at the end of the week, and all the beautiful beaches in the world won’t make the guests come back for more.  The foundation of any company isn’t just the top dogs, nor is it just the front lines.  It’s everyone, from the lowest paid part-time temporary worker to the CEO.  And to be successful, they all have to be involved, and each must accept specific responsibilities.

. . .how we should live to make our lives as bountiful as possible at the least expenditure of toil and with the greatest inner contentment, bringing forth fruit for our own and for the common good.

Nearly a hundred and fifty years ago, Jastrzebowski realized that work was a necessary evil, for both mental and fiscal survival.  Those who recognize that successful work shouldn’t be a daunting task are the ones who stand to make the greatest gains.  And the ones who choose to spend the day just spinning around in their ergonomic chairs?

. . . ultimately with all due equity to be judged by others and by our own consciences.

Is ergonomics a good thing?  You be the judge.

Quotes taken from “An Outline of Ergonomics, or the Science of Work, Based Upon the Truths drawn from the Science of Nature.” Wojciech Jastrzebowski, 1857.

This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2002-09-01.