Our Ergo Challenge Winner in the Individual Category: Sarah Arrigo with “Cirque-gonomics”

Ergonomics July 10, 2018

Congratulations to our Ergo Challenge Winner in the Individual Category!

We’re thrilled to announce the second winner of our first ever, Ergo Challenge. We had so many good entries that we split the contest into two categories – Corporate Ergonomics and Individual Ergonomics. Beverly was our winner in the corporate ergonomics category and you can read her story in last week’s blog. This week we’re pleased to introduce our Ergo Challenge Individual Category winner, Sarah Arrigo. As our individual category winner, Sarah has been awarded access to the online course of her choice along with a RollerMouse Red and Balance Keyboard generously donated by Contour Design. You can read Sarah’s Ergo Challenge submission below. Congratulations, Sarah!


The greatest ergonomics challenge I ever faced is also my greatest achievement.

It’s a never-ending lesson to approach work with sense of curiosity and adventure. It helps me enter into a productive and happy state, in spite of restrictive environments. It’s a practice in the art of daily life, where the little details come together in a unique composition each day. And, as a new graduate of San Jose State University’s Occupational Therapy (OT) program, it has helped me to trust in human’s innate ability to adapt.

After an on-the-job acrobatics accident in the circus, my world was turned on its head (kind of literally). Cervical spine surgery forced me into early retirement and I experienced a complete loss of occupational identity. I went from spending 8 hours a day wrangling a trapeze to 8 hours a day staring into a computer screen. My challenge was and continues to be what guides my ergonomics practice: Bringing the adaptive skills I learned as a professional circus performer into more typical workplace environments.

Now, I can guess what you might be thinking: What does circus have to do with ergonomics? Many of us sit in chairs at our workplace, not atop elephants and trapezes.

Ergonomists design and arrange objects to optimize them for human use, so that the people and objects interact most easily. Circus artists design and arrange human’s use of objects to optimize what humans can do, so that the interaction between people and objects becomes an illusion.

Think about it.

The circus world is designed to exist on the fringe of the common world. As if it doesn’t exist, the circus gives all involved a moment to escape the mundanity of everyday life. But what non-performers don’t often know is we do this by reframing our relationships with the common, everyday objects and environments. Early man’s changing use of tools enabled him to evolve. Circus arts, which include juggling, magic, object manipulation, acrobatics and more, hold secrets to human change. The three-ring circus may seem chaotic, but actually it’s a place of utmost safety and order. It has to be to present the illusion of the impossible.

For instance, the trick to bending a spoon is all in the way you hold the handle. Change the way you see the world and eventually, the world changes. The circus performer develops a playful view of objects to solve real world problems. We throw bowling pins (juggling clubs) in the air to see if we can catch them. We notice if the beam structure of an old warehouse is suitable to hang circus equipment!

So how did I, monkey-girl acrobat, adapt through ergonomics? What do you do when your typical work environment is a trapeze 20 feet off the ground? I knew in order to re-enter the “non-circus world” I had to not only bring my curiosity and playfulness, but also my heightened sensory awareness.  For me, circus was about molding my body to fit the environment. Now, with plates and screws limiting mobility in my neck, I not only learned to mold the environment to my body but how to use my mind-body connection to be mindful of my surroundings, finding Do-It-Yourself, ergonomic solutions.

I began rearranging environments and objects in order to maximize my learning. From standing while studying, to angling my computer with a 3” binder, to tuning into my body and practicing deep belly breaths when frustrated, overtime I refined my practice. I didn’t abandon all I had become, but used it to adapt to my new situation. The proprioception I received from my feet on a hard surface helped me know how to position my entire body while standing. As I refined my practice, I gained awareness of how to link other health-promoting practices into my day. I’d incorporate yoga transitions, moving through mountain pose when picking up something from the floor. When feeling stiff on long car rides, I noticed that a paper towel roll made a great positioning support for my thoracic spine.

This process, of using creativity to make ergonomic adjustments, became empowering and brought great joy to everyday tasks. Were there others like me taking this approach in their lives? Was this all a bit goofy? I wondered what the implications would be of taking my practice into more public places, such as graduate school.

I had learned that to be the most efficient student I could be, I needed to alternate positions of standing, sitting and stretching during long lectures. I’d do quick assessment of the room, identifying any objects I could use to create a “standing desk” (stacking chairs, using a cardboard box to prop my computer on). If it was distracting to the teacher or my fellow students we’d work together to find a solution.

Some devices I used were more socially acceptable than others and some solutions became more of a clown act than functional solution. Because I didn’t want to stress my neck, I carried my books to school in a wheeled backpack that attached to my waist and trailed 3 feet behind me. You can imagine how awkward it was positioning myself in packed elevator. I looked like a centaur, with my chariot, wheeling behind me!

Not everyone understood why I was taking this approach. I didn’t expect them too. It takes strong convictions to live one’s purpose, especially if it’s innovative. But through trusting my process I found others. Hence, my greatest achievement goes beyond my own personal empowerment. I’ve learned and continue to learn how finding one’s own solution grants others the permission to discover what works for them. Hence, the greatest achievement is that I am finding ways to contribute to the larger process of human evolution through ergonomics.

There is no one right fit between work task and environment. The way I see and experience the world is not for everyone and I constantly have to make sure my “creative idea” fits in with safety protocols. But for a second, can you imagine what your office would be like if sitting on bouncy balls became normalized behavior or if taking a break to play a game with your co-worker was a common activity.

Maybe it would feel just a little bit more, like the circus.

Ergo Challenge Winner

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