An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure

Los Alamos National Laboratory ergonomist Kristen Sestric helps employees optimize workspaces and mindfulness to prevent injuries — and stay healthy

February 8, 2023

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Kristen Sestric began her career as a physical therapist. But shortly after joining Los Alamos National Laboratory as an ergonomist, she discovered that she enjoyed preventing injuries more than fixing them after the fact.

“I’ve loved the shift to ergo, which allows me to help mitigate the risks that occur in the workplace rather than treat the injuries that stem from those risks,” she says. “I also love that I still get to help people in really important ways, and here at the Laboratory I feel that I have the opportunity to help a larger population.”

After graduating from the University of the Pacific with a clinical doctorate in physical therapy, Sestric spent the next 13 years working in outpatient practice in the mountain communities of Reno-Tahoe, Nevada; Sun Valley, Idaho; and Bend, Oregon. In each location, she developed a following of loyal patients due to her ability to solve challenging cases.

“I used a lot of hands-on, or manual, techniques to improve my patients’ mechanical capacity for movement, and I taught them how to find the most ideal positioning for functional movements,” she says. “This allowed for their core muscles to engage automatically and created a stable base of support for functional movement.”

Sestric was ready for a change when three years ago, drawn by the allure of the mountains of Northern New Mexico and her husband’s longing to return to his hometown, the pair looked at Los Alamos as an ideal place to raise their son. “There are just so many cool educational opportunities for such a small town,” she says.

With a zeal for learning that has defined her career, Sestric jumped into ergonomics at the Lab and began to explore novel ways to help prevent the kinds of injuries she used to treat.

“Through my ergonomics training and certification processes, I’ve really taken a deeper dive into the domains of ergonomics and have worked hard to develop my skill set in ergonomics,” she says. “Ergonomics is so much more than just a special keyboard, mouse or chair. It is the scientific discipline concerned with understanding the interactions among humans and other elements of a system.”

While working at the Lab, Sestric has been certified as an Associate Ergonomics Professional through the Board of Certification in Professional Ergonomics and gained the qualifications to perform office, non-office and glove box ergonomic evaluations.

The services she offers help employees prevent painful injuries in their day-to-day work environment. Sestric says she enjoys problem-solving and innovation to find the best possible solutions and attributes her experience to the broad education she has sought.

“Kristen is an excellent example of a dedicated professional who stands out here at the Laboratory,” says Bill Mairson, former acting Environmental, Safety, Health and Quality associate Laboratory director. “Her constant drive for self-improvement, focus on professional development and endless pursuit of ensuring the health and well-being of Laboratory employees benefits the Ergonomics Department and the Laboratory as a whole.”

Occasionally, Sestric draws on her experience as a physical therapist to help workers identify and prevent possible injuries early. She also uses her physical therapy expertise to assist Occupational Health’s Early Intervention Program and provides that service for ALDESHQ employees who are experiencing physical pain at work.

In her study of ergonomics, Sestric was fascinated to learn that the field goes beyond work posture and office layout. Cognitive ergonomics, for instance, is related to mental processes and how they affect interactions among humans and other elements of a system.

“This includes perception, memory, reasoning and motor response. So, when we talk about cognitive ergonomics, we are focusing on things like mental workload, decision-making, skilled performance, work stress and human reliability,” she says.  

Cognitive ergonomics also considers things like the science of mindfulness, the impact that cognitive challenges can have on our spine health and even our muscle strength, and the impact stress has on our tissue healing and perception of pain.

“I spent several years in clinical practice specializing in functional activities and the impact that emotional stress and trauma can have on the healing processes. So, exploring cognitive ergonomics has been right up my alley,” Sestric says. “I have even started to look at how cognitive ergonomics impacts common workplace injuries that have not previously been considered ergonomic issues at all, such as slips, trips and falls.” 

Like any good health practitioner, Sestric practices what she tells Lab employees.    

“I want to stay peaceful and calm in the face of adversity, so I have learned techniques to reduce reactivity and de-escalate situations, and have researched the science of mindfulness,” she says. “I am also very aware of my limitations and do not allow my ego to stand in the way of finding the best possible outcome for any given situation. In this way, I have learned to depend on the members of my team to work toward a common good.”

Sestric talks about the a-ha moments that light up her weeks. “I love helping people perform work tasks that previously were uncomfortable or inefficient or making small changes that have big impacts,” she says.

Looking forward, she wants to bring unique and innovative solutions to her work with the goal of helping prevent or reduce pain for more employees.  

“I want to know what I’m talking about when I’m educating my customers, so I take as many classes as I can, to try to develop my knowledge base,” she says. “I’m excited to see what else I can add to my toolbox as I continue to develop my career in ergonomics here at Los Alamos.”