A Brief History

Ergonomics emerged as a scientific discipline in the 1940s as a consequence of the growing realisation that, as technical equipment became increasingly complex, not all of the expected benefits would be delivered if people were unable to understand and use the equipment to its full potential.

Initially, these issues were most evident in the military sector where high demands were placed on the physical and cognitive demands of the human operator. As the technological achievements of World War 2 were transferred to civilian applications, similar problems of disharmony between people and equipment were encountered, resulting in poor user performance and an increased risk of human error. The analysis of poor performance, of what became known as man-machine systems (now human-machine systems), provided a growing body of evidence which could be linked to difficulties faced by the human operator. This stimulated research by senior academic and military physiologists and psychologists and led to further investigations of the interactions between people, equipment and their environments. Although the early focus was on work environments, the importance of ergonomics has become increasingly recognised in many spheres, including the design of consumer products such as cars and computers.

In 1949, at a meeting of distinguished physiologists and psychologists at The Admiralty, the term ergonomics was coined from the Greek roots (ergon and nomos). Later that year this same body of scientists, together with some like-minded colleagues formed the Ergonomics Research Society (ERS) which became the first such professional body in the world.

In the following sixty-two years, the ERS has evolved to represent the current discipline, both in the United Kingdom and internationally. In 1977 the ERS became the Ergonomics Society (ES) in recognition of the increasing focus on the professional application and practice of ergonomics that stemmed from the ever-increasing theoretical and research base. The ES became a Registered Charity (number 292401) and a Company limited by guarantee (Company number 1923559) in 1985.

As the discipline evolved, some variations in terminology arose in different countries. In the USA the term human factors took on the same meaning as ergonomics in the UK. Although the two terms have been and remain synonymous to professionals, popular usage has recently accorded different shades of meaning to the terms. As a consequence, human factors may be considered to imply the cognitive areas of the discipline (perception, memory etc) whereas ergonomics may be used more specifically to refer to the physical aspects (workplace layout, light, heat, noise etc). In 2009, following a vote by the membership and approval from Companies House, the ES was renamed the Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors (IEHF) to reflect the popular usage of both terms and to emphasise the breadth of the discipline.

In 2014, the discipline’s importance was recognised officially by the award of a Royal Charter to the Institute. This allows us to confer Chartered status on those members who fulfil certain criteria. This includes having a high level of qualification and experience and being able to demonstrate continuing professional development. At the end of 2014, the Institute had 294 members who were eligible for Chartered status, with many more about to become so. These are the first such ‘Chartered Ergonomists and Human Factors Specialists’ in the world. The Charter and its accompanying governing documents were unanimously accepted by the membership at an Extraordinary General Meeting in November. The Institute changed its name once again, to the Chartered Institute of Ergonomics & Human Factors.