FPE asks Valerie Berg Rice, PhD, CPE, OTR/L (Chief of the ARL-Human Research and Engineering Directorate) why and how she became a Human Factors Engineer / Ergonomist?
The short answer is that I saw the need within the health care community for additional training and application in the area of design.
Now for the long answer. I started my career as an Occupational Therapist and a US Army Officer. As a military therapist, I was concerned with the physical, cognitive, emotional, and cultural aspects of individuals and individual human performance abilities in returning to a full and active life post injury or illness. This is crucial for our military and for their families, and fulfilling for a therapist!
Recognizing the need for a broader set of skills, I achieved a second Master’s degree in Health Care Administration and found myself engaged in a number of design projects: re-designing patient call centers; assessing and re-designing ward and unit supply cart systems; calculating the need for health care professionals based on population and injury statistics; assessing patient health care usage; creating and administrating hospital-based wellness programs; and re-designing equipment use directives. But, I still had this desire to learn and do more for people. And, human factors/ergonomics fit the bill. Research informs health care practitioners and administrators – helping them design better environments, equipment, and practices.
While the Army Medical Specialist Corps periodically sent therapists to graduate school, Human Factors/Ergonomics was not a degree that was considered appropriate. Realizing these were the types of skills I needed to help Army personnel, I presented a plan to the Chief of our Corps. It worked! And, I attended graduate school in Human Factors Engineering at Virginia Polytechnic Institute.
Now, where does the Army place a therapist with a Ph.D. in Human Factors/Ergonomics? The answer is the US Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine (USARIEM). I was fortunate to be the first Occupational Therapist stationed there to do full time research. I focused my research on physically demanding military tasks, such as lifting, carrying, and psychophysics of lifting and weight perception. This was my first full-time job as a Human Factors Engineer and I loved it. What’s not to love about a job where you get to ask questions, answer them, and then travel to explain the answers to other professionals and para-professionals, who will use the information to make the world a better place? I was also assigned to the U.S. Army Public Health Command, helping to research and establish the need for an Ergonomic presence within this command. All of this resulted in four actions: (1) providing graduate-level education for Occupational Therapists as part of the overarching strategic plan for the Army Medical Specialist Corps; (2) assigning therapists with Ergonomic training to either USARIEM or to the U.S. Army Public Health Command as a use tour following Human Factors/Ergonomics graduate school; (3) developing a strong Ergonomics program at the Public Health Command overseen by Occupational Therapists trained in Ergonomics; and (4) drafting a policy where individuals certified by the Board of Certification in Professional Ergonomics were eligible to receive specialty pay.
During my military career, I was the Director of the Tri-Service Occupational Therapy Assistant Training Program at Ft. Sam Houston. As a Colonel, I directed the educational program, introducing introductory level Ergonomics so our technicians could evaluate the worksites of injured patients. I also edited my first text-book Ergonomics in Health Care and Rehabilitation, which lead to my next job.
I investigated over-use injuries in the military. At that time, it was said that there were no over-use injuries in the military, because cumulative trauma only occurred in factories and other repetitive jobs. On investigating the injuries, however, it became clear that over-use injures were occurring as a result of physical training programs and in the office environment of long-term civilian employees. As a result of these studies, policies and procedures for military physical training were altered, new educational programs were developed for service members of all ranks, and this information was placed into several service schools. The awareness of over-use injuries seems almost common-place today, yet continued education of our newer service member is always essential.
As I prepared to retire from my military career and start a new one as a university professor, 9/11 happened. A US Army Research Laboratory (ARL) representative met with me about the need for Human Factors/Ergonomics research focused on (and with) the U.S. Army Medical Command. I accepted the position of Chief of the ARL-Human Research and Engineering Directorate – U.S. Army Medical Department Field Element on Ft. Sam Houston.
Since then, our research has focused on many diverse issues including data entry and retrieval for remote medical recording; helmet evaluation and design; assessment of health system data entry and acquisition tools; evaluation of non-human simulation training effectiveness; evaluation of technologies for identification of minimal Traumatic Brain Injury; assessment of Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (meditation) with Soldiers and veterans for enhancing resiliency and neurocognitive performance; evaluation of training offered in-person vs. over a virtual world, and investigating neurocognitive temporal training for improving cognitive and physical performance.
Why do I love being a Human Factors Engineer / Ergonomist?
- My work is never dull.
- My research results are always applied and directly help our Service members and their families. What I do has a positive impact on the lives of others.
- The focus of my research changes, allowing me and my team, to become experts in a variety of professional arenas.
- The work offers continued education and an excellent background for occasional expert witnessing or consulting in human factors, ergonomics, and human performance –fun options for professional work.
- My personal interests can be combined with my professional work: Two of my edited books were written entirely on my own time (evenings and weekends), not at work. This includes the book mentioned above on Health Care and Rehabilitation and the text I co-edited with my college roommate Rani Lueder (yes, we met as undergraduates and then wrote a text together, years later!), titled: Ergonomics for Children: Products and Places for Toddlers to Teens. Much of this work (for me) combined my experience working as a therapist with children, my raising my own children, and working as a human factors engineer / ergonomist.
- My colleagues are my friends.
I expect the same will be true for you, should you be a professional in this field or decide to become one.