An Ergonomics Approach to Avoiding Office Workplace Injuries and Illnesses

Working Americans spend about 2,000 hours per year in the workplace. All of these hours can take a toll on your eyes, back, arms, and neck.

Exposure to adverse working conditions can result in momentary pain or long-term injury. Moreover, poorly designed working environments contribute to reduced efficiency, decreased production, loss of income, increased medical claims and permanent disability.

The ultimate goal of ergonomics is to design the workplace so that it accommodates the variety of human capabilities and limitations to prevent musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). While designing ergonomic hazards out of the workplace is ideal, other measures such as administrative controls (including training or employee rotation) and changes to work practices are often more feasible initially.

How MSDs Occur

MSDs are a family of muscle, tendon, and nerve disorders that are caused, accelerated or aggravated by repeated movements of the body, particularly when awkward postures, high forces, contact stresses, vibration and exposure to cold are evident. The hands, wrists, arms, shoulders, neck, and back are composed of a complex network of nerves, bones, tendons, and fluid. Irritation of these tissues during certain work activities can, over time, result in elevated fluid pressure around nerves. This can cause compression and may eventually cause nerve damage. Nerves can also be damaged by pressure from inflamed tendons. Carpal tunnel syndrome is a common example of this: The median nerve in the wrist becomes compressed and ultimately damaged as tendon structures swell. A chief cause of this is repeated or sustained work involving high force or using a bent or extended wrist.

Unfortunately, since repetition is one of the key factors in causing MSDs, non-work related activities, such as needlework, gardening, fly-casting and bowling can also affect the progress of the illness and recovery. These activities may aggravate a work-related or generate a non work-related MSD. This can make it difficult at times to identify the main cause of a person’s disorder.

Applying ergonomics to the workplace will help you and your employer strike a proper balance between work requirements and staff capabilities, lessening the likelihood of MSDs arising.

Making Your Computer Truly “User-Friendly”

Many computer jobs offer few opportunities for alternate activities or postures, and, thanks to the fluidity of computer keyboards, workers can key faster and for longer uninterrupted stretches than ever before.

Posture

Although your own work habits can contribute to back and shoulder pain, using good posture is not a simple matter of finding the “right” position in which to sit. Even “poor” postures (feet up on chair rungs, slumping, twisting your body into odd positions) can prove comfortable if you don’t remain in them for extended periods of time. In fact, shifting about periodically proves useful for many people.

Ergonomic specialists recommend the following changes to your behavior and work environment to avoid back, neck, and shoulder pain:

  • Change your body position periodically throughout the day. 
  • Use a document stand to reduce the amount of neck twisting or bending forward if typing from a source document.
  • Position your keyboard directly in front of you and at approximately elbow height. This should enable you to type with straight wrists. If this is not possible with the keyboard atop the work surface, use an adjustable-height keyboard tray.
  • Center your monitor with your keyboard and chair.
  • Avoid ear-to-shoulder neck positioning while on the phone.  Use a telephone headset that will allow you to work on the computer with good posture while on the phone. 
  • Rearrange the work area to avoid excess bending, stooping, and reaching.
  • Try to relax. Many injuries and painful episodes arise from continuously tensing your neck and shoulder muscles while working.

Seating

A good chair can contribute significantly to reducing the risk of lower back pain or injury. A good ergonomic chair includes all or most of the following characteristics, not just one or two:

  • Adjustable lumbar support that maintains the natural “S” curvature of the spine
  • Angle between the backrest and seat that allows you to sit without leaning forward uncomfortably
  • Adjustable armrests
  • Slightly inclined backrest
  • Allows for a variety of seated postures
  • Seat height adjustability
  • Seat pan depth adjustability
  • Soft, rounded edges
  • Size that fits you
  • High backrest or headrest for deeply reclining postures
  • Comfortable but slip-resistant fabric
  • Casters that are appropriate for the floor surface

If your feet don’t reach the floor, consider using a footrest. In addition, if you have an older chair without lumbar support, try using a small pillow or towel roll to relieve pressure on your lower back.

Also, remember that ergonomic features won’t help you if the chair doesn’t suit your body or sitting habits, so adjustability is important. Be sure to have the adjustable features of your chair explained to you to ensure the best fit.

Repetition

As with musculoskeletal disorders, one of the best ways to avoid back, neck, and shoulder injuries is to minimize sustained exertions. The following tips should help you:

  • Alternate tasks. If possible, get up from your workstation periodically to use the phone, make copies, file paperwork, etc.
  • Take several rest breaks. For many people, “microbreaks” that allow you to pause frequently are more effective than the traditional 15-minute break every two hours.
  • Take short breaks that involve active exercise (walking, stretching); they are often the most effective in relieving stress on the back, neck, and shoulders.

Eyestrain

A frequent physical complaint by people who spend a lot of time in front of a monitor is eyestrain. Specialists in ergonomics have identified several problem areas and possible corrections for eyestrain, including:

Glare
  • Move or shield the light source.
  • Move the monitor.
  • Change the monitor’s angle.
  • Apply a good quality glare filter to the monitor.
  • When correcting for glare, don’t create other problems. For instance, if you move your monitor, don’t put it in a place that will produce neck strain. The monitor should be directly in front of you.
  • When possible, place your monitor at a right angle with the window.
Lighting Levels
  • Following the preceding recommendations, adjust your screen position and lighting sources (lamps, etc.) to achieve best results.
  • Work with a light screen background (dark type or images on white or pale background)—you will find it is easier on your eyes.
  • Rest the muscles of your eyes by focusing on a distant object, away from your monitor,  occasionally.
  • When using a laptop, look into the distance more frequently. A laptop monitor will probably not have the best placement, since it is attached to the keyboard.
  • If you are using a laptop at your primary workstation, a docking station with an external keyboard and mouse should be used.  An external monitor, or display, should also be considered.

Readability of Screen and Document

  • Place monitors directly in front of you and documents to the immediate right or left, at the same distance.
  • Upgrade or replace monitors with poor resolution or flicker.
  • Adjust your monitor’s font size or (if appropropriate).
  • If you wear glasses, consider getting full-frame reading glasses prescribed for the working distance of your monitor (typically, 15 to 30 inches/ 38 to 76 cm). These will allow you to place the monitor correctly and see well without stressing your posture.
  • Place the monitor so that the top of the screen is at your line of sight.  If you wear bifocals the top of the screen should be slightly below your line of sight.
  • Don’t skip visits to the eye doctor. Eyestrain could indicate a problem with your vision beyond the use of a computer monitor.

Psychological Stresses

Stress may be factored into work injuries in two interconnected ways:

  • How stress contributes to physical ergonomic problems
  • How using a computer contributes to stress

For instance, a stressful work environment may cause you to remain tense for long periods of time, use repetitive motions, take fewer breaks, or fail to report work-related medical problems when they arise. This creates a cycle that can contribute to pain and injury.

Although workers may not have extensive input into stressful elements of a job (such as the number of staff available to handle the workload), one way to reduce stress is to give personnel awareness of and control over ergonomic conditions. Understanding your work environment is essential. So is gaining control over certain aspects of your surroundings, such as user-adjustable chairs and lighting levels. Information and control go a long way to reducing stress levels.

A Productive Partnership

It is in everyone’s best interest to apply ergonomics to the workplace. Poor working conditions are bad news for both employees and employers, resulting in physical suffering and adverse economic impact. Although the suggestions offered here should help, many employers may wish to take the extra step of consulting directly with a professional in the field of ergonomics to analyze specific working conditions and make recommendations.  A partnership among staff, employers, and ergonomic specialists can help redesign the workplace to meet the capabilities and potential of every employee.