Office Ergonomics is Good Business
Be aware of common workstation problems that can be easily and, in most cases, inexpensively corrected.
- By Julie Nussbaum
- Apr 01, 2008
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,
• 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
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
• 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
• 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
• 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
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.