Bernardino Ramazzini: The First Ergonomist (and what have we learned from him?)

Bernardino Ramazzini, and Italian physician and philosopher, is considered the founder of occupational medicine (or ergonomics). In 1700 Ramazzini published De morbis artificum diatriba (Diseases of Workers), the first comprehensive work on occupational diseases.

Ramazzini realized that a variety of common workers’ diseases appeared to be caused by prolonged irregular motions and postures. Ramazzini studied the relationship between certain disorders and postural attitudes, repetition of movements, and weight lifting and anticipated some preventive measures.

Standing, even for a short time, proves so exhausting compared with walking and running, though it be for a long time. It is generally supposed that this is because of the tonic movement of all the antagonist muscles, both extensors and flexors, which have to be continually in action to enable a man to keep standing erect. It follows that whenever occasion offers, we must advise men employed in the standing trades to interrupt when they can that too prolonged posture by sitting or walking about or exercising the body in some way.

Those who sit at their work and are therefore called “chair-workers,” such as cobblers and tailors become bent, hump-backed, and hold their heads down like people looking for something on the ground; this is the effect of their sedentary life and the bent posture of the body as they sit and apply themselves all day to their tasks in the shops where they sew. Since to do their work they are forced to stoop, the outermost vertebral ligaments are kept pulled apart and contract a callosity, so that it becomes impossible for them to return to the natural position. These workers, then, suffer from general ill-health caused by their sedentary life.

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The maladies that afflict the clerks arise from three causes: First, constant sitting, secondly the incessant movement of the hand and always in the same direction…Incessant driving of the pen over paper causes intense fatigue of the hand and the whole arm because of the continuous and almost tonic strain on the muscles and tendons, which in course of time results in failure of power in the right hand.

All sedentary workers suffer from lumbago. They should be advised to take physical exercise, at any rate on holidays. Let them make the best use they can of [exercise] one day, and so to some extent counteract the harm done by many days of sedentary life.

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Therefore in work so taxing moderation would be the best safeguard against these maladies, for men and women alike; for the common maxim “Nothing to excess” is one that I excessively approve.

It seems like ergonomists have been giving basically the same advice for 300 years. Occupational injury and disease has existed since the beginnings of “work” as we understand it today, (agriculture, organized labor and mass production) and is caused by the same basic problem…repetitive, unnatural motion without breaks.

The evolution of industry and technology has brought with it only further enslavement of the worker to our own machinery. Although working conditions have definitely improved in the last 100 years, I would say today’s workers (both manual laborers or office jockies) tax their bodies just as much as ever.

What is the ultimate goal of our work? Marx would say our efforts go towards making a few people richer, while the rest of us waste our lives doing hard work we hate, just to survive. It is certainly hard to argue the point that technology makes our lives easier, because we still work just as hard to control the machines we designed to “do the work for us.”

Resources:
Ergonomic Problems During the 17th Century
Bernardino Ramazzini