Involving workers improves ergonomics

Planning, testing and feedback lead to adjustable workstations for 300 employees

For some companies, making good design or purchasing decisions when it comes to office workstations remains a partially solved riddle. Good design is a process that must be respected and followed to achieve a work system that works as expected, with minimal surprises.

Unfortunately, it’s quite common to find examples of companies that, through best intentions, take a crack at “getting it right the first time” only to be followed by second, third and fourth attempts.

But one digital media company got the design right on the first try. The company, based in Downsview, Ont., operates around the clock, seven days a week and has more than 300 employees in 12 locations across the country. In some locations, each workstation is used by up to 20 different employees in any one workweek.

The company’s goal was to create workstations employees would be able to use for the next 10 to 15 years. So what did it do? It used a solid design approach that included:

• identifying office design goals and outcomes

• considering the office as a system and seeking organizational involvement

• identifying workers’ characteristics and seeking their participation in the process

• understanding job demands, job design and work organization

• planning and considering the office layout and office environment

• designing individual workstations

• reviewing the design

• testing and evaluating the design

• selecting the final design

• installing the workstations

• providing education and training

• following up and determining the workstation’s effectiveness

• communicating the results.

Initially, the company learned about employees’ job tasks and work methods. It also planned for the next decade by identifying any planned or anticipated technical upgrades to computer software and hardware in addition to facility renovations.

Next, the company talked to all employees — at length. It used standardized surveys to better understand the challenges employees faced and their ideas to address those challenges. It also used the surveys to solicit unbiased feedback from staff about their creative ideas and concerns associated with the new workstations.

It also used focus groups and short, highly directed brainstorming sessions to identify current and anticipated future design challenges in light of this project, employee and management’s concerns and their ideas to help resolve the current challenges and how to avoid future pitfalls.

Involving employees in identifying the problems and developing solutions gave them ownership of the process. This can, in turn, reduce injuries, increase productivity and help build morale, trust and job satisfaction.

The company then reviewed principles and clauses from the Canadian Standards Association’s Guideline on Office Ergonomics (CSA-Z412-00) and the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society’s Engineering of Computer Workstations (ANSI/HFES 100-2007).

It selected the most relevant information to be used along with the results of the employee surveys, focus groups and brainstorming sessions to create a design requirement that would form the building block and test plan from which the components of the workstation would be selected, sourced, prototyped, built, tested and evaluated.

This process directed them toward purchasing, developing, testing and selecting, in a word, adjustability.

Inactivity does not contribute to personal and ­corporate wellness. People are physiologically built to move and their bodies are generally happier when they have options to move while working.

The following are some of the workstation specifications that optimized adjustability:

• Work surface layout that optimized leg space to ensure postural adjustability and support while seated.

• Employees preferred working with the keyboard and mouse on the work surface, so the company chose a work surface that adjusted electrically 22 to 52 inches in height to accommodate 95 per cent of the working population in three seated postures, as well as when standing.

• Research and employee usability testing allowed the employer to offer workers a selection of 10 different chairs and stools. These were complemented with a footrest (minimum dimensions: 22 inches long, 12 inches deep and four inches high with a 20-degree tilt up and down) to allow for reclined postures, leg support while standing and greater use of leg and hip muscles when seated upright.

• The nature of the work necessitated three 24-inch LCDs mounted on articulating arms, with an adjustable height from 14 to 30 inches and 20 inches in depth to accommodate for 95 per cent of the working population for seated and standing eye height (ensuring the top of the LCD was eye height to three inches below) and different eyeglass lens prescriptions.

• For input devices, a 21-inch graphics tablet with stylus was mounted on an articulating arm, for adjustability. With the arm, it could be used as an LCD screen and adjusted to a vertical position with the other screens or it could be pulled down and used as a graphics tablet when required. The tablet was ultimately chosen for its comfortable stylus and interactive nature as a safer alternative to standard mouse use for intensive graphics software applications that require extended periods of digital rendering and object manipulation.

• After selecting about two dozen different keyboards and mice to test and evaluate, employees chose four different keyboards and mice that were acceptable to them in operational conditions. Keyboards had a standard layout but were less than one-half inch in profile. The mice had standard controls — three buttons and a scroll wheel — but all had a contoured design that produced a relaxed grip, no wrist extension or mechanical stress to the wrist.

The workstations were launched across the country over a six-month period in co-ordination with an education program on how to get the most benefit from the workstation’s adjustability.

One-minute feedback surveys were distributed to employees quarterly over the following year. The surveys allowed workers to comment on their overall satisfaction with the workstation, its advantages, disadvantages and any suggestions for further improvement. The results of the surveys were communicated with the workforce to show them improvements were having a positive impact and any challenges identified were being addressed.

The improvement process does not have to take long to complete. But being patient and respecting the process is important if you want to save considerable expense. Getting the design right the first time is less costly than fixing something that has already been built.

David Chiasson is president of Ergonomic Systems Associates, a Halifax-based health and human performance consulting firm that specializes in good design through ergonomics. He can be reached at (902) 431-6356 or [email protected].

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