Office Ergonomics is Good Business

Be aware of common workstation problems that can be easily and, in most cases, inexpensively corrected.

As most safety people know, ergonomics is the science of fitting job tasks, workstations, and equipment to individual workers. Ergonomics looks at all aspects of a job, from the design of tools, tasks, and equipment to adequate lighting and how the overall workstation is set up. And its principles can be applied everywhere—in the workplace, at home, and to recreational activities.

Good ergonomic programs have several things in common. They focus on prevention, are a component of a holistic approach to occupational safety and health, and can measure their value to the company through productivity gains, morale, and lower insurance costs.

A major benefit of good ergonomic design is, of course, fewer musculoskeletal disorders, which translates into fewer OSHA recordables, lower incidence rates, less absenteeism, and a reduction in worker’s compensation premiums. Some of the intangible rewards you may not think about include improved productivity, less job turnover, worker comfort, and greater job satisfaction.

Desk Job Dangers
You don’t have to be an ergonomist to do an effective ergonomic assessment of your office workers. Although doing a job assessment for ergonomic risk factors in an office setting may not be quite the same as on the production floor, many of the same risks will show up in various job tasks throughout the workplace. Knowing what to look for probably will alert you to more risk factors than you anticipated finding.

Almost everyone who works in an office setting spends a good portion of the day on the telephone, the computer, or both—jobs that make them prime targets for an assortment of ergonomic injuries. Awkward and static postures, contact stress, and repetitive motions are prevalent among people who spend hours sitting at a desk or workstation, such as:

• The call center workers who spend eight hours talking on the telephone and keyboarding at the same time

• The computer programmer sitting for hours developing a new program

• The administrative assistant reaching or stooping to file documents

• Workers who spend the majority of their day doing data entry Many other office jobs result in wear and tear on the body over a long period of time.

The trouble is, this wear and tear occurs so gradually that most people don’t realize what’s happening until they’re hurting. By then, the damage has been done. That’s why early reporting and intervention are essential.

Awareness training that involves practicing good ergonomic techniques and recognizing the signs and symptoms of muscle stress before they become major problems is important. You may routinely include this type of training for workers on the production lines and on the shop floor but never think of bringing it to those workers with sedentary jobs.

Ergonomic Injuries Around the Office
Musculoskeletal disorders can result in soreness, numbness, and tingling; a limited range of motion; weakness; and tenderness and swelling. Common disorders that show up in people who work in office settings are generally classified as cumulative trauma disorders. These injuries are caused or aggravated by repetitive motions, sustained or awkward postures, and compression; and they result in aching, tenderness, and numbness.

Cumulative disorders that are frequently diagnosed in office workers include:

• Tendonitis inflammation, which occurs when a muscle or tendon is repetitively tensed from overuse

• Epicondylitis from overuse, causing pain and tenderness in the elbow and forearm

• Carpal tunnel syndrome caused by overuse, which compresses and entraps the median nerve in the wrist, causing pain, tingling, and numbness in the hand and fingers

When you’re doing assessments for ergonomic risk factors in office jobs, you need to be aware of common workstation problems that can be easily and, in most cases, inexpensively corrected. Encourage employees to practice ergonomically sound techniques when you find the following conditions:

Wrist planting
• When wrists are idle, they often rest on the sharp edge of the desk, causing pressure points between the wrist and the desk and damage to nerve and blood vessels. Float the wrists; don’t press them on the edge of the desk.

• Use a wrist rest or support brace to keep the wrists in a neutral position.

• Do exercises about once an hour by gently shaking the wrists, fanning the fingers, and stretching the wrists by slowly pulling the fingers back or pushing them against a wall or edge of the desk.

Wrist and leg contact stress
• Float the wrists; don’t press them on the edge of the desk.

• Remove jewelry from the wrist that uses the mouse.

• Tilt the chair seat pan slightly forward and raise the feet if necessary to relieve pressure on the backs of the legs.

Mousing wrist, hand, and finger stress
• Use a variety of keystrokes to relieve some mouse work.

• Take your hand off the mouse when it’s not being used. Let the hand relax.

• Use a mouse that vibrates when it’s not moved for some time as a reminder to remove the hand.

• Switch the mouse hand.

• Use a different type or style of mouse.

• Maintain a neutral wrist with some space underneath and float the whole forearm along with the mouse. This allows the larger muscles to contribute to the task.

Lower back pain
• Maintain a supportive posture by placing both feet on the floor.

• Sit slightly over the desk.

• Sit with the back straight, buttock bones on the chair.

• Shift your position frequently.

• Get up and move around hourly.

Neck and shoulder pain
• Check the monitor placement. The top of the screen should be slightly below eye level. The middle of the screen should be about 6 inches below eye level.

• Use a hard-copy document holder.

Another Avenue to Explore
Finally, when you’re doing an assessment, don’t forget to look at records of recordable injuries and illnesses, first aid reports, absenteeism, and job transfers. Identifying ergonomic problems may be more difficult than identifying an injury from a single event, but with some investigation, you should be able to see where these conditions are prevalent.

Between performing job assessments for ergonomic risk factors and analyzing your records, you’ll be able to focus on problem tasks and ultimately reduce those types of incidents. Although you may not be able to completely eliminate exposures, you can achieve your goal of identifying and minimizing risks and making ergonomically sound techniques and practices a routine occurrence in the office.

This article originally appeared in the April 2008 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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