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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?

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.

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

Most ergonomists have not heard the second one!

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.

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.

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

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?

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.

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!

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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

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.

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

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!

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

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

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.”

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.”

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


Alexander Technique: The Insiders Guide

maintained by Marian Goldberg, MSTAT

Alexander Technique Center of Washington, D.C.

"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...I think that one could say this: both the Alexander Technique and Ergonomics are, at their core, about systems thinking."  Joyce Stenstrom