The term “ergonomics” is derived from two Greek words: “ergon,” 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:
- All work activities should permit the worker to adopt several different, but equally healthy and safe postures.
- Where muscular force has to be exerted it should be done by the largest appropriate muscle groups available.
- 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.
Here, however, we arrive at a problem – and a serious challenge to conventional ergonomic thinking: 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.
They would, in other words, need to be able to master their own “Inner Egonomics”.
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.*
Any attempt to improve workplace conditions can have only limited success if this issue is ignored.
One training program that cultivates precisely these skills is the Alexander Technique. It has a long history of helping people develop the subtle coordination of thought and physical action required to monitor and alter harmful patterns of posture and movement. In short, it enables its students to put ergonomic principles into practice, and thus helps them reduce their risk of developing a repetitive strain injury and other stress-related injuries. For example, a comprehensive study published by the British Medical Journal in 2008 offers overwhelming evidence that the Alexander Technique is a very effective way of alleviating backpain.
The Alexander Technique was developed in the early 20th century before ergonomics became a recognized science and has been applied since then by people all ages and professions. The Technique can be described as a simple and practical educational method which alerts people to ways in which they are misusing their bodies, and how their everyday habits of work may be harming them. It 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. Stated another way, the Technique teaches the use of the appropriate amount of effort for a particular activity.
* Excerpted and adapted from ‘Applying Ergonomic Principles in the Workplace: How the Alexander Technique can Help” by Holly Sweeney. Holly 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 served as a Researcher and Independent Evaluator at the Occupational and Industrial orthopedic Center for the Hospital for Joint Diseases in New York City.