In the 3rd edition of the ILO’s Encyclopaedia, published in 1983, ergonomics was summarized in one article that was only about four pages long. Since the publication of the 3rd edition, there has been a major change in emphasis and in understanding of interrelationships in safety and health: the world is no longer easily classifiable into medicine, safety and hazard prevention. In the last decade almost every branch in the production and service industries has expended great effort in improving productivity and quality. This restructuring process has yielded practical experience which clearly shows that productivity and quality are directly related to the design of working conditions. One direct economical measure of productivity—the costs of absenteeism through illness—is affected by working conditions. Therefore it should be possible to increase productivity and quality and to avoid absenteeism by paying more attention to the design of working conditions.
In sum, the simple hypothesis of modern ergonomics can be stated thus: Pain and exhaustion cause health hazards, wasted productivity and reduced quality, which are measures of the costs and benefits of human work.
This simple hypothesis can be contrasted to occupational medicine which generally restricts itself to establishing the aetiology of occupational diseases. Occupational medicine’s goal is to establish conditions under which the probability of developing such diseases is minimized. Using ergonomic principles these conditions can be most easily formulated in the form of demands and load limitations. Occupational medicine can be summed up as establishing “limitations through medico-scientific studies”. Traditional ergonomics regards its role as one of formulating the methods where, using design and work organization, the limitations established through occupational medicine can be put into practice. Traditional ergonomics could then be described as developing “corrections through scientific studies”, where “corrections” are understood to be all work design recommendations that call for attention to be paid to load limits only in order to prevent health hazards. It is a characteristic of such corrective recommendations that practitioners are finally left alone with the problem of applying them—there is no multidisciplinary team effort.
The original aim of inventing ergonomics in 1857 stands in contrast to this kind of “ergonomics by correction”:
... a scientific approach enabling us to reap, for the benefit of ourselves and others, the best fruits of life’s labour for the minimum effort and maximum satisfaction (Jastrzebowski 1857).
The root of the term “ergonomics” stems from the Greek “nomos” meaning rule, and “ergo” meaning work. One could propose that ergonomics should develop “rules” for a more forward-looking, prospective concept of design. In contrast to “corrective ergonomics”, the idea of prospective ergonomics is based on applying ergonomic recommendations which simultaneously take into consideration profitability margins (Laurig 1992).
The basic rules for the development of this approach can be deduced from practical experience and reinforced by the results of occupational hygiene and ergonomics research. In other words, prospective ergonomics means searching for alternatives in work design which prevent fatigue and exhaustion on the part of the working subject in order to promote human productivity (“... for the benefit of ourselves and others”). This comprehensive approach of prospective ergonomics includes workplace and equipment design as well as the design of working conditions determined by an increasing amount of information processing and a changing work organization. Prospective ergonomics is, therefore, an interdisciplinary approach of researchers and practitioners from a wide range of fields united by the same goal, and one part of a general basis for a modern understanding of occupational safety and health (UNESCO 1992).
Based on this understanding, the Ergonomics chapter in the 4th edition of the ILO Encyclopaedia covers the different clusters of knowledge and experiences oriented toward worker characteristics and capabilities, and aimed at an optimum use of the resource “human work” by making work more “ergonomic”, that is, more humane.
The choice of topics and the structure of articles in this chapter follows the structure of typical questions in the field as practised in industry. Beginning with the goals, principles and methods of ergonomics, the articles which follow cover fundamental principles from basic sciences, such as physiology and psychology. Based on this foundation, the next articles introduce major aspects of an ergonomic design of working conditions ranging from work organization to product design. “Designing for everyone” puts special emphasis on an ergonomic approach that is based on the characteristics and capabilities of the worker, a concept often overlooked in practice. The importance and diversity of ergonomics is shown in two examples at the end of the chapter and can also be found in the fact that many other chapters in this edition of the ILO Encyclopaedia are directly related to ergonomics, such as Heat and Cold, Noise, Vibration, Visual Display Units, and virtually all chapters in the sections Accident and Safety Management and Management and Policy.