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Emergency Services Ergonomics and Wellness

Download or order the handbook: Emergency Services Ergonomics and Wellness September 2020, 258 pages
  • Chapter 1 /

A brief history of the origin of ergonomics and human factors

The foundations of the science of ergonomics appear to go back as far as humans do. Ergonomic principles were found in archeological discovery of rocks and animal bones used as extensions of the hand to help with tasks. In the fifth century B.C., Hippocrates used ergonomic principles in his description of how a surgeon’s workspace should be designed and how the tools should be arranged during surgery to maximize safety and efficiency. Over the centuries that followed, the effectiveness of tools such as hammers, axes and plows improved through changes in design and usage protocols, thereby increasing productivity. The Industrial Revolution in the mid-19th century then brought large-scale manufacturing. This emphasis on improving processes and production was based on ergonomic principles (Dennerlein, 2016).

World War II inspired an increased interest in the interactions between humans and machines. The introduction of complex and sophisticated machines and weaponry put new demands on an operator's cognition and response time. The success or failure of the machine was dependent on the operator's situational awareness, decision-making, attention, coordination and reaction. It was found that the best-trained pilots flying fully functional aircrafts were still crashing. This inspired interest on the design of controls and displays. When controls were made with more differential, and placed more logically, the frequency of “pilot error” was reduced. This continued drive to create efficiency and safety in the relationship between human and machines continues in warfare preparations today.

The coining of the term “ergonomics,” derived from the Greek words “ergon” meaning work and “nomos” meaning natural law, was officially accepted in Britain in 1950. Later in 1952, Britain formed The Ergonomic Society. The United States followed shortly thereafter, forming The Human Factors Society in 1957.

Human factors and ergonomics continued to diversify in the decades that followed WWII. The Space Age created new human factors for consideration, including weightlessness and extreme gravitational forces. The Information Age inspired a closer look at the human-computer interface and workspace design as the personal computer popularized. The benefits provided from the principles of ergonomics and human factors expand to many industries, including:

  • Automotive.
  • Chemical.
  • Construction.
  • Military/defense.
  • Forestry.
  • Health care.
  • Manufacturing.
  • Mining.
  • Nuclear.
  • Petroleum.
  • Telecommunications.
  • Firefighting.

This handbook will focus on the principles of ergonomics and human factors that can be used to improve work practices and reduce the prevalence of injury among emergency responders. Ergonomic risk factors are present during activities both on and off the work site. Understanding the risk factors listed below and how to minimize them is key to a successful injury risk-reduction program. Each of these categories will be addressed in later chapters.

Forceful exertions

  • Lifting/carrying (patients and equipment).
  • Forcible entry.
  • Maneuvering equipment.
  • Hoseline operations.
  • Hydrant operations.
  • Struck by objects.
  • Ventilation tactics.

Awkward postures

  • Lifting/carrying (patients and equipment).
  • Maneuvering equipment (ladders, stair chairs, gurneys, hoselines, tools).
  • Getting on/off apparatus.
  • Wearing PPE and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA).
  • Crawling, crouching, twisting, bending.
  • Ventilation tactics.

Sustained positions

  • Patient care.
  • Sitting, standing, bending, kneeling, crawling.

Repetitive/prolonged activity


  • Power or hand tools.

Extreme environmental conditions

  • Heat.
  • Cold.
  • Noise.
  • Visual impairments — smoke, dust, weather.
  • Particulate agents — smoke, dust.
  • Liquid or gaseous agents.

Work station limitations

  • Sitting — posture and design of workspace.
  • Visual display terminals.

Vehicular use

  • Sitting postures.
  • Navigating in/out/on apparatus.

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