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Ergonomics and the Alexander Technique

Two Professions: Ergonomics and the Alexander Technique
Part I

The following is a conversation between Joyce Stenstrom and Marian Goldberg. Joyce Stenstrom was formerly the Ergonomist for the Mayo Clinic and now works as an independent consultant. She has been an Alexander Technique student of Carol and Brian McCullough and has been taking private lessons since 1996. Marian Goldberg is is the Director of the Alexander Technique Center of Washington's Teacher Training Program. The conversation took place on September 14, 1997. The first two parts of the conversation appeared in the Fall 1997 and Winter 1998 NASTAT (AmSAT) newsletters.

The conversation focuses on how ergonomics relates to the Alexander Technique as a field of study and as a profession.


September 14, 1997

Marian Goldberg: Ergonomics seems very popular right now. I understand that it is a young profession and field of study with (like the Alexander Technique) a small number of practitioners. How did the field of ergonomics come to be?

Ergonomist and Alexander Technique student Joyce Stenstrom
Ergonomist Joyce Stenstrom

Joyce Stenstrom: Well the common story is this: During World War II, American pilots were crashing in non-combat conditions. The first question considered asked, “was this due to a lack of training?” The answer was no, the pilots were very well trained. Another question asked, “could there be a lack of motivation?” No, the pilots were definitely motivated to live. Could it be poor technology? No. So the question surfaced about whether the technology actually fit the pilots. The Army Air Forces commissioned experts from many fields of study to bring their skills to bear on the particular dilemma. They included physiologists, psychologists, and engineers, among others. Labs were set up to gain a better understanding of how information consoles could best be displayed in aircraft, how controls might be designed, etc. When the war concluded, these same people felt that the things that were learned were generalizable beyond the war effort and that technology had outpaced our ability to rely on common sense alone. There needed to be a profession to provide a more systematic and scientific approach to challenges. The profession became known as human factors. At about the same time as the human factors profession was developing in the United States, there were kindred spirits doing the same thing in Europe. In Europe the term, “ergonomics,” or “ergonomy” came to be used to describe the group of professionals who were bringing their talents to bear on the design of work places to fit the worker, and this concept replaced the Tailoristic concept of fitting the worker to the work. At one point the Europeans and Americans met with high hopes of combining their efforts in some way. These early hopes were dashed, however, because they did not have much commonality of purpose after all. The Americans were going through their very first phase of what was referred to as “knobs and dials” ergonomics, which reflected by their focus on design issues of controls and displays. The Europeans were focused much more on the physiology of everyday work. Some years later an interest in a more international effort surfaced again, and this time it developed into the International Ergonomics Society. This summer I just returned from the 14th triennial meeting which was held in Finland.

So this is the most popular story. But a story that's not so well known is that ergonomics most likely had its origins as a profession in the Soviet Union. Scientific efforts to support “the workers state” were referred to as ergonomics and many physicians received training specific to work environments. Earlier still, the word “ergonomy” was used in Poland to describe the principles and beliefs of the current profession.

Marian: Well I've heard the first story before, but not the second one.

Joyce: Most ergonomists have not heard the second one!

Marian: Are there many ergonomists working in the field?

Joyce: It's difficult to know the actual number of people working in this field. The professional society in the United States, the Human Factors Society, has about 5000 members. However, among these members, only a fraction are practitioners. Many are researchers; many are students. An increasing number represent manufacturers of equipment. Many are individuals from other professions who simply have an interest in this work. On the other hand, I think that a rather large number of people fall into the role of ergonomists for the company that they're working for and may not even be aware that there is a professional society to join. So you have both aspects: lots of people who belong to the professional society are not practitioners and lots of people who do ergonomics don't belong to any society.

Marian: Does the field of ergonomics have its own specific training? Or do you have a general training in something like engineering or physiology or kinesiology and then you just go do it?

Joyce: It's both. The Human Factors Society recognizes several training programs. They are all masters and Ph.D. programs. They typically are in the engineering departments—industrial engineering, or psychology or some combination of the two. There are quite a few programs—about 22. But the curious thing is that of the members of the society there are only a relatively small fraction that have gone through such programs.

Marian: How is someone classified as an ergonomist? Are there any set standards or licensing requirements that ergonomists must meet? Or can anyone call himself/herself an ergonomist?

Joyce: Basically anyone can call himself/herself an ergonomist but they can take a test also, after let's say five years of practice and some level of training. Until recently, professionals joined the organization through a combination of interest, education, and the type of work they were doing. The vast majority of people came from other disciplines such as psychology, physiology, or kinesiology and they would apply their skills to the work environment. It's only in the last few years that there's been an effort underway to develop a credentialing program. The first step was to credential ergonomics programs; for example, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and the University of Michigan were among the first to have credentialing programs. But this did not address the issue of credentialing practitioners. Several people recognized that the training needed for research was not the same as the training needed for practitioners. Recently, individuals in the Human Factors profession established a credentialing process for practitioners. There's now a testing procedure for practitioners. This has been developed not by the Human Factors Society but by some of the key members.

But the credentialing is really in its infancy. It's very difficult to credential ergonomics because the field is so broad. People may be doing stellar work in one area but may know nothing of another area. So the question is “what do you put on a test?” That's the nature of this particular profession. I see it as a profession of professions. It's a coming together of many professions for a certain goal. The goal is the worker/work environment interface.

Marian: Are there continuing education requirements for ergonomists?

Joyce: No. There are the ethical requirements to keep abreast of pertinent information in the particular field you're in and not to make statements about subjects that are beyond your level of expertise.

Marian: Were there particular reasons that people started establishing the credentialing process? Was it done to help define and establish ergonomics as a distinct field?

Joyce: I think the sudden surge in the popularity of ergonomics had something to do with it. Lots of people were entering it from other professions who didn't really grasp the core issues of what made an ergonomist an ergonomist. They came from fields such as physical therapy, etc. These are obviously good professions, but there are certain core issues to ergonomics that are unique to the profession, and these were being diluted by this popularization.

Marian: It sounds as though the sudden surge in popularity was a double-edged sword. Is there concern that the people who practice “ergonomics” actually know what ergonomics is, that they know what they are doing?

Joyce: Yes. There is concern. Ergonomics is an easy profession to mess up. It's an easy profession to think that you've “got it” when you only really understand it superficially. Everybody can get really excited about the notion of it and it seems like it's very sensible but you can be in over your head very quickly, basically by thinking you know something when you really don't.

Marian: Can you give a brief description of some of the things that people don't always grasp or understand? Although I guess you can't describe them briefly, that's the problem!

Joyce: Right! Though I can say that there are two basic things that are misunderstood if taken in a superficial way. It's not about thinking about things in isolation, such as a wrist rest, an adjustable chair, etc. Ergonomics is about a systems approach—a whole different way of thinking.(1) Some of the things that are said in the name of ergonomics are almost the antithesis of the real profession. Thinking from a systems perspective is a very core issue of Ergonomics as a profession. I think that one could say this: both the Alexander Technique and Ergonomics are, at their core, about systems thinking.

The other critical element is empirical research. Testing things out and having the professional ethics to say “we know this much about that and no more.” I think ergonomists tend to have a lot more reserve about what they say is the truth. It's the non-ergonomists who would say, “oh, this is what's ergonomic.”

Marian: So ergonomists are scientists rather than just designers and promoters of “ergonomic” products.

Joyce: Right. I think the media presents a really weird picture of what ergonomics is about. To illustrate what I mean, when I moved from Minnesota to Virginia for my masters degree (in 1988) a friend of mine gave me a t-shirt that said “ergo-what?” This pretty much captured the public knowledge of the profession in 1988. But by the time I returned home in 1991, it seemed like everybody knew what ergonomics was. But what they knew was something other than what I had been studying. The ergonomics that everyone was talking about had to do with carpal tunnel syndrome and computer injuries.

Marian: Was this because (as you mentioned earlier) of people coming from other backgrounds, such as physical therapy, and deciding what ergonomics was without looking into it enough? Because they had expertise in other areas they thought they could shortcut learning ergonomics?

Joyce: Right. And the ergonomics that I had been studying had to do with such things as research design, information theories, systems theory, anthropometrics, biomechanics, and other things. And it made me long for the “old” days when people simply didn't know what ergonomics was! I think the popularized notion of ergonomics is that it is about products with inherent ergonomic attributes, such as lumbar supports, wrist rests, etc. To the masses, ergonomic is perhaps an adjective. To the people who study it, it's a way of thinking about things; it's also a question mark that just keeps growing.

Marian: That's fascinating. That could describe the Alexander Technique.

Joyce: Sounds familiar?

Marian: Yes, it sounds very familiar, including what you said about a systems approach versus looking at things in isolation. Also, I've seen similar problems with trying to popularize the technique. People often try to categorize it to fit it into something familiar, either because of preconceived ideas from their own background or in order to appeal to a particular group of people or to the public in general. It makes it seem much more limited than it really is—not something unique—just another one of many alternative healing methods or movement techniques.

Joyce: Yes, people try to make it “fit” into something they know. And it's so different from anything they know that you can't really describe it.

Marian: Well, that's what Alexander said. And, of course, you have to go through the actual experience of learning the technique to understand what it is.

Joyce: Absolutely. And I feel absolutely to my bones that that's true with ergonomics too.

Marian: How did you first become interested in ergonomics?

Joyce: I was studying electrical engineering and working as an intern for a large manufacturing facility. My assignment was to investigate why there were so many failures of a particular product. The defects were not being caught in the manufacturing process but were failing in the field where they were causing enormous problems. The problem had been looked at from many angles over many years. As I observed the entire manufacturing process with a production engineer, he commented that he was so desperate to solve the problem that he was considering putting the person who had the final quality check in a harness, which would prevent her from ever taking her eyes off a possible defect! I was astonished that such a brutal idea was coming from an otherwise good person. I casually said to a friend of mine later that there should be a profession that concentrates only on interface between human beings and their work environment and it should be called human factors. She informed me that there was such a profession and that the company I was working for had several human factors engineers!

Marian: So you came up with a needed profession to find that the profession already existed.

Joyce: Yes. A lightbulb went on for me and I knew that I wanted to change course. Partly for humanitarian reasons and partly because I was looking for an excuse to do anything other than electrical engineering! I think that's another commonality between ergonomists and Alexander teachers. Most of us were on another course and something happened and we changed course. I don't think that many people start out from high school thinking “oh, I'd certainly like to be an Alexander teacher” or “oh, I'd like to be an ergonomist!”

Marian: Yes. Well it sounds like that particular experience with your work caused you to have another perspective—set into motion a new way of looking at things. That's the same sort of thing that sparked Alexander into developing the technique. And of course the Alexander Technique itself sets into motion a new way of looking at things.

Joyce: Yes, I think that both people in ergonomics and the Alexander Technique probably usually have an interesting “lightbulb going on” story to tell about why they got into their respective professions. Whereas stories for the more traditional professions are probably not so interesting!

© 1997 Marian Goldberg, Joyce Stenstrom

(1) The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge explains the systems approach:

“From a very early age, we are taught to break apart problems, to fragment the world. This apparently makes complex tasks and subjects more manageable, but we pay a hidden, enormous price. We can no longer see the consequences of our actions; we lose our intrinisic sense of connection to a larger whole.When we then try to ‘see the big picture,’ we try to reassemble the fragments in our minds, to list and organize all the pieces. But, as physicist David Bohm says, the task is futile—similar to trying to reassemble the fragments of a broken mirror to see a true reflection. Thus, after a while we give up trying to see the whole altogether.”

“The practice of systems thinking starts with understanding a simple concept called ‘feedback,’ that shows how actions can reinforce or counteract (balance) each other. It builds learning to recognize types of ‘structures’ that appear over and over again…eventually, systems thinking forms a rich language for describing a vast array of interrelationships and patterns of change. Ultimately, it simplifies life by helping us see the deeper patterns lying behind the events and the details.”

“Learning any new language is difficult at first. But as you start to master the basics, it gets easier. Research with young children has shown that many learn systems thinking remarkably quickly.”

The Fifth Discipline, The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization Peter M. Senge. Currency Doubleday. New York, New York. 1990



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Ergonomics and the Alexander Technique, Part II
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