With ergonomics, better furniture will only get you so far

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.

A proper ergonomics assessment involves watching the worker in the work station, looking at work patterns and positions. Often it is possible to alter existing equipment to achieve optimal positioning without buying new equipment. Sometimes only inexpensive accessories such as monitor risers or mouse trays are needed.

Body position is the key to a safe and efficient work environment. For example, shoulder muscles are most relaxed when the arms hang down to the floor. The best keyboard/mouse position is with raised forearms (bent at the elbow to about 90 degrees) because it causes less exertion and muscle fatigue in the shoulders and between the shoulder blades. An individual’s chair arms, keyboard and mouse platform should be adjusted to leave the arms in that position. If the existing equipment can’t be configured this way, it should be replaced.

Once the workstation is set up properly, the way equipment is used is as important as the configuration of the furnishings. Therefore education is a big part of creating a safe working environment. It is essential to learn proper work techniques, and to learn how to stretch the neck and forearm muscles effectively. Research shows that taking stretch breaks not only reduces injuries, it also improves productivity.

The role for HR

Education: The workforce needs to be educated about the prevention of injuries — factors such as good posture during work, rest and stretch breaks, knowledge of how to adjust the furniture and tools at their work stations, the potential impact of non-work activities on the development of injuries, and the benefits of healthy lifestyle for injury prevention.

Early recognition: Recognizing injuries early often prevents them from progressing further. It also allows the educational material to be reinforced with an individual who may now be more motivated to incorporate it into the daily routine. The cost of treating an early injury is significantly lower and time off work can usually be avoided.

Implementation: The implementation phase involves putting all the pieces together. Each year, companies spend large amounts of money on new furnishings and equipment. Rarely is adequate consideration given to the people who will use them. The pace and priorities of work in our society has more often been defined by the capacity of the machines and equipment and less often by the capacity of the people.

Overuse syndromes account for an increasingly large percentage of workers’ compensation costs each year. The U.S. Bureau of Labour Statistics’ annual survey reports that these injuries represent nearly half of the occupational illnesses reported. We are now at the point of being able to make meaningful interventions to prevent them, recognize them early and take appropriate action. A proactive approach incorporating education, early recognition and implementation will help reduce the number and severity of injuries, cutting employers’ costs.

Heather Tick is director of the RSI Clinic in Toronto. For more information visit www.rsiclinic.com.

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