The modern history of ergonomics in the Western world dates back to the 1940s, during World War II. As a result of the demands of warfare, many able-bodied young men were drafted to participate in the war effort, leaving their civilian work (e.g. in factories). At the same time the war effort demanded new military vehicles, equipment and instruments, giving rise to a new form of industry, which needed to produce products at a high pace with high quality, and therefore required more manpower.
This meant that production on the home front needed to be staffed by the population who remained. The shift included re-training and transferring male workers from civilian businesses to the warfare industry, but also called on women, the elderly, disabled and previously excluded social groups to fill the demand. Recruitment efforts resulted in a new form of state propaganda that gently challenged societal norms, such as by stating that women should be capable of performing assembly jobs as it was not completely different from high-precision housework.
As a result of this drastic diversification of the working population, industries began investing in physical aids (such as new tools and devices for lifting and supporting heavy machinery) to enable the presumably weaker Workers to carry out assembly jobs at a maximum level of efficiency and productivity. This first shift of the 1940s, where industrial attention was focused on the human functioning in a technical system, is referred to as the “physical generation” of ergonomics developments. The focus was on physical characteristics of the human body, anthropometry, posture, health and safety, perceptual capabilities, and how they affected the design of technology. Scientific and practical developments have since continued in the field of physical ergonomics to the present day, with plenty of influence coming from sports medicine (emphasizing physical performance) and medical monitoring of health (using measurement instruments such as electromyography, EMG, to study human muscle use).
About 20 years later, in the 1960s, scientific developments were made in the area of computers and robotics, which presented many new possibilities but were also perceived by some as a threat to the human worker; would robots take over all human jobs? Would they, indeed, take over the world? While these fears were left hanging, science and engineering underwent a change of perspective; instead of looking at how human needs influenced technology, the demands of technology on humans were highlighted instead, leading to a focus on cognitive psychology, mental workload (and overload), skill, cognitive limitations (e.g. memory) and psychological factors during work. The 1960s brought with them a rapid development of computer interfaces and control rooms.
Yet another 20 years later, in the 1980s, HFE researchers began to realize that in spite of their extensive knowledge in the areas of physical and cognitive ergonomics (uniting the body and the mind), it was seldom that that knowledge was allowed to influence the design of workplaces and machinery. They realized that there was a strong dependency between technology and organizations, and that the effect of interpersonal relationships that influence design outcomes was greater than previously thought. This led to a view of ergonomics work being part of a “sociotechnical system” with greater focus on the context and the stakeholders surrounding ergonomics, leading to the thirdgeneration known as “the Macroeconomic generation”. Sometimes also referred to as “organizational ergonomics”, this branch explores the role of ergonomics within an organizational context with multiple stakeholders with different agendas. It also addresses the fact that working successfully withergonomics is a balance of considerations; this is especially true for production ergonomics, where the goals of production engineers, economists, managers, human factors professionals and operators can all influence decisions and changes in workplace improvement.
Dray (1985) describes this historical development as the “three generations of ergonomics”. However, the evolvement of HFE did not stop in the 1980s. Yet another 20 years onward, in the year 2000, the council of the International Ergonomics Association (IEA) decided to strengthenthe industrial relevance of ergonomics by declaring globally that ergonomics was not only focused on the human’s well-being, but also on the efficiency, performance and productivity of work systems and machines. There was also a need to signal equality between the terms ergonomics and human factors, as both terms were used to signify similar concerns, but with some variation both between countries and industrial sectors (for example, Scandinavian countries and the manual assembly industry have a tendency to use the term ergonomics, while the term human factors is more predominant in North America and in the nuclear industry).