With ergonomics, better furniture will only get you so far

By Heather Tick
|CHRR, Guide to Healthy Workplace|Last Updated: 05/28/2002

These days the term “ergonomic” is used to sell everything from desks to computer mice. The prevailing attitude is that if it says “ergonomic” that it is somehow better and will prevent the injuries. The merchandisers are pushing a misconception: the thought that the right furniture or accessories will prevent or treat these injuries. The truth is that ergonomics is the act of fitting the work station to the individual. Ergonomics is not the furnishings; it describes the activity. The most ergonomically designed workstation, if used improperly, will not prevent or alleviate injury.

Take keyboards, for example. There are different sizes, configurations (no numeric pad, keys farther apart,) and shapes (curved, split, waterfall). But one size does not fit all, due to different hand sizes, variability in the range of motion at the elbow and wrist, and different keying requirements. Therefore, a conscientious employer that wants to prevent injury and replaces everyone’s keyboard with one marketed as being “ergonomic” may be adequately serving the needs of only a few employees. In the long run, it is more beneficial to have each worker evaluated individually in the workstation by a knowledgeable assessor, and replace only what is really necessary.

For small business the words “ergonomics assessment” may seem intimidating. There may be fear that the process is too involved or too expensive. However, ergonomic improvements can be made in a practical, staged fashion that can fit the budgets of even small businesses. The key is to try to utilize the existing setup and modify it where possible to improve the position of the worker. Recommended new equipment can be introduced as the budget becomes available. The assessment should provide a sense of the order of priorities, as well, so the company can wisely spend its ergonomics dollars.