Graying Matters

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that by the year 2010, 17 percent of the U.S. workforce will be 55 and older.1 Using this projection for office environments means nearly one in five desks in the traditional American office soon will be occupied by someone who has spent the majority of life as an employee not necessarily paying attention to daily habits such as posture. As occupational health and safety professionals know, half a lifetime of repetitive stress and awkward positions at work can lead to perpetual discomfort or chronic disability, leaving both employers and employees at risk.

Workplace injuries, including musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) such as tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome, are often painful reminders of the effects that ergonomic risk factors, such as awkward posture, can have on the body. Not only employees are hurting; it affects companies’ bottom lines. In 2006, more than 350,000 cases of work-related MSDs resulted in lost workdays,2 and costs associated with common pain conditions and lost productivity in the United States are estimated at $61.2 billion per year.3

Just as these pain conditions show no sign of disappearing in the American workplace, the aging workforce is also here to stay. In fact, it is projected that by 2050, nearly 20 percent of American workers will be 55 and older.1 With age may come the increased potential for workplace injury from poor habits. However, professionals in our arena have the opportunity to reduce this risk by educating employees on the benefits of adopting proper ergonomics techniques and implementing essential product solutions in the office.

Practicing proper ergonomic principles at work helps ensure comfort, increase productivity, and reduce health issues correlated to repetitive stress and back, neck, wrist, and shoulder strain that can debilitate members of the aging workforce by creating new ailments or exacerbating current ones. Few employees are aware of the potentially damaging habits they perpetuate each day at the office, which makes proper education key to maintaining a healthy workforce. Following are several techniques employees can incorporate at work to ensure they stay healthy and comfortable for years to come.

The Eyes Have It
To protect their eyes, employees should be approximately an arm’s length away from the computer monitor, and the position of the top of the computer screen should be at, or slightly below, eye level. Mini breaks should be taken every 10 to 20 minutes to rest the eyes staring continuously at the monitor.

Shoulders should be relaxed and in a neutral position throughout the day, and elbows should be close to the employee’s sides while using the keyboard and mouse. By taking a moment every so often to roll the shoulders up and back, tension can be alleviated throughout the day.

Wrists should be kept in a straight, neutral position throughout the day. The bottom of the employee’s elbows should be kept even with the keyboard height, not below it.

Chairs should be adjusted so thighs are approximately parallel to the floor, and the employee should sit back in the seat so that his lower back is supported firmly by the chair or a support cushion. Employees should get up and stretch their back and legs at least every hour.

In addition to these practices, ergonomic product solutions on the market are designed to let a worker maintain a neutral posture throughout the day. The most effective products focus on the parts of the body most affected by poor ergonomics and thus are designed to address the hands, arms, back, and feet.

Posturing Solutions
Palm support:
A computer mouse often lacks sufficient ergonomic design elements, making a palm support a key tool for workplace injury prevention. A palm support encourages natural and healthy movement to avoid dangerous risk factors caused by awkward postures and contact stress.

Keyboard tray: The layout of a typical workspace makes the proper position of a keyboard below the desk to prevent shoulders from staying in a tense, fatiguing position throughout the day. A keyboard tray allows shoulders to be relaxed and elbows to stay at an employee’s sides.

Back support: Designed to prevent slouching and to provide lumbar support, a good back support can prevent back pain and provide optimal working comfort.

Foot rocker: A common mistake employees make is sitting with their legs crossed or in an awkward position. A foot rocker can ensure thighs are approximately parallel to the floor while still encouraging movement to increase circulation while sitting.

Occupational health and safety professionals are the gatekeepers who ensure employers and employees are doing all they can to ensure health by preventing injury and promoting comfort at the office. Through education about the benefits of ergonomics in the workplace, aging workers will have a better chance of continuing their careers healthy and safe.

References
1. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Labor Force Projections to 2010,” November 2001.
2. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Nonfatal Occupational Injuries and Illnesses Requiring Days Away from Work, 2006,” November 2007.
3. Journal of American Medical Association. “Lost Productive Time and Cost Due to Common Pain Conditions in the US Workforce,” November 2003; 290:2443-2454.

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

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