Applying Ergonomic Principles in the Workplace:
How the Alexander Technique can Help
by Holly A. Sweeney
As early as the 18th century, doctors noticed that workers whose jobs required them to maintain certain body positions for long periods of time developed musculoskeletal problems. In the last 20 years, research has clearly established the connection between certain job tasks and repetitive stress injuries, or RSIs.
Two elements are at work here: static work and force. Static work refers to the musculoskeletal effort required to hold a certain position, even a comfortable one. For example, when we sit and work at computers, keeping our head and torso upright requires either small or great amounts of static work depending upon the efficiency of the body positions we choose. Force refers to the amount of tension our muscles generate. For example, tilting your head forward or backward from a neutral, vertical position quadruples the amount of force acting on your lower neck vertebra. This increase of force is due to the increase in muscular tension necessary to support your head in a tilted position.
The term ergonomics is derived from two Greek words: erg, meaning work and nomoi, meaning natural laws. Ergonomists study human capabilities in relationship to work demands. In recent years, ergonomists have attempted to define postures which minimize unnecessary static work and reduce the forces acting on the body. All of us could significantly reduce our risk of injury if we could adhere to the following ergonomic principles:
1. All work activities should permit the worker to adopt several different, but equally healthy and.safe postures
2. Where muscular force has to be exerted it should be done by the largest appropriate muscle groups available.
3. Work activities should be performed with the joints at about mid-point of their range of movement. This applies particularly to the head, trunk, and upper limbs. (Cortlett, 1983)
Here, however, we arrive at a problem: In order to put these recommendations into practice, a person would have to be a skilled observer of his or her own joint and muscle functioning and would have to be able to change his or her posture to a healthier one at will. No one develops this sort of highly refined sensory awareness without special training. Therefore, in order to derive the benefits of ergonomic research, we must learn how to observe our bodies in a new way.
One training program that cultivates these skills is the Alexander Technique, which enables its students to put ergonomic principles into practice, and thus helps them reduce their risk of developing an RSI.
The Alexander Technique is not new. It was developed in the early 20th century before ergonomics became a recognized science and has been applied throughout this century by people from all walks of life. The Technique is an educational method which shows people how they are misusing their bodies and how their everyday habits of work can be harmful. It also teaches people how to avoid work habits which create excessive amounts of static work and how to reduce the amount of unnecessary muscular force they are applying to their bodies.
Performing artists comprise one occupational group which has studied the Alexander Technique extensively. This group of workers is extremely aware of the potential for serious injury as a result of repetitious demands on the body. Typically, the work demands of performing artists require hours of daily practice and rehearsal plus the rigors of maintaining performance schedules. In addition to the desire to perform at peak levels of skill, performers also hope to extend their careers as far into their life span as possible. RSIs represent a serious threat to livelihood and career longevity. It is for these reasons that the Alexander Technique is found in the curriculum of most performing arts schools.
The Alexander Technique is studied in group classes as well as in private lessons. Students are taught how to observe themselves in a new way and bring a higher level of awareness to routine activities. Students are sometimes surprised to discover that the Alexander Technique does not involve a prescription to do certain exercises or to practice new positions. They quickly come to understand that exercises or positions will not teach them anything fundamentally new. Instead, students learn to observe themselves in a new way and experience the physical benefits that come from a more refined understanding of all the elements that contribute to everyday tasks such as sitting, standing, walking, and working.
In an Alexander lesson, students experience profound physical changes through the gentle guidance of the teachers hands. These changes are a direct result of reduction of static work demands and force. As students progress in their study of the Technique, they notice that they feel more comfortable performing everyday tasks like sitting, standing, walking, typing because they have learned how to lower static work and applied force within their bodies.
Students of the Alexander Technique report increased self confidence as they learn to exert a constructive influence over the repetitive injury process; they discover that they do not have to be unwitting victims of RSIs. This increased sense of self reliance and fresh perspective on how to protect their body from injury contributes to a mental state that is less anxious, more resilient and better prepared to handle work challenges safely.
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Holly A. Sweeney is an ergonomist and certified Alexander Technique teacher with offices in Montclair, New Jersey and in New York City. She has a M.A. in Ergonomics and Orthopedic Biomechanics and she has been a Researcher and Independent Evaluator at the Occupational and Industrial Orthopedic Center for the Hospital for Joint Diseases in New York City.
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