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The Impact of Taylorism on Occupational Health: A Controversial Legacy

The scientific organization of work advocated by Taylor, known as Taylorism, has enjoyed considerable success worldwide since the late 19th century. However, the solutions it proposes contain an element of arbitrariness and have quite limited real-world application.

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Since its inception in the late 19th century, Taylorism has left an indelible mark on the history of work organization. Designed by Frederick Winslow Taylor, this model aimed to increase the efficiency of industrial production by relying on a scientific study of labor. While its success is undeniable, its application and its consequences on work and workers continue to raise important questions today, especially in the field of occupational health.

The scientific method applied to labor

The rise of Taylorism coincided with the Second Industrial Revolution, where industrial enterprises, particularly those related to the railway, had to adapt their labor management methods to a more hierarchical structure. The concept of work organization, originally formulated by Louis Blanc, was then realized through the introduction of a normative framework aimed at regulating the relationship between labor and capital, thus replacing what was perceived as liberal anarchy.

Taylor introduced a radical change by establishing a scientifically determined production standard. Systematic timing of the most efficient workers allowed for standard times to be defined for each task. This approach created a higher authority in the field of work organization: the expert, whose mission was to define the rights and obligations of each worker, for the benefit of the collective interest.

However, there is no shortage of criticism. Taylorism, while having brought a certain productive efficiency, has been pointed out for having led to a rigorous and often ruthless selection of the workforce, as well as a potential overwork of employees. Indeed, by only considering the intensification of human labor, this model often neglected the qualitative and psychological aspects of work.

Henri Fayol, a contemporary of Taylor, proposed an alternative by rehabilitating the figure of the leader in the company with his principle of “unity of command.” Fayolism focused on power plays and psychological management, thus contrasting with Taylorism, which considered the factory as a large machine.

Towards the mechanization of labor

Over time, the focus has shifted from the intensification of human labor to automation, especially when the material processed became more valuable than the human time invested. This led to the birth of cognitive ergonomics and a deeper reflection on the importance of quality over quantity in the work process.

Despite its widespread adoption, Taylorism proved to be mainly applicable in large industrial enterprises, leaving a large part of the productive sector on the sidelines. Its application in the tertiary sector has been very limited, underscoring its lack of flexibility and relevance in certain contexts.

Taylorism has often proven to be an organizational solution suited to ensure rapid growth of production in times of crisis, such as wars or reconstruction phases. However, it has shown to be less effective as a sustainable model for work organization, as it often favored the intensification and mechanization of human labor at the expense of real technical innovation.

In Conclusion:

Taylorism remains a topic of debate, particularly in terms of its impact on the health and well-being of workers. The intensification of work and the reduction of it to repetitive tasks have psychological and physical consequences that are increasingly scrutinized by health specialists.

Philippe Casanova

Specialist in occupational medicine and forensic medicine.