It’s a problem that can start out small and become a huge headache. An employee sitting in front of a computer all day begins suffering from neck pain, or notices a tingling in the hand that heralds carpal tunnel syndrome. Or a worker in an industrial setting who lifts heavy items suffers back strain. In time, those seemingly minor ailments snowball into much bigger ones.
Such injuries can cost employers a lot of money. Companies pay $15-20 billion each year in worker’s compensation costs, according to a report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and $1 of every $3 is spent on work-related musculoskeletal disorders. Employers face lawsuits, absenteeism, lost productivity, turnover and even lower product quality-and all of this costs a great deal of money. By ensuring that employees’ work environments and equipment are designed comfortably and efficiently-a concept known as ergonomics-employers can prevent future problems, improve employee productivity and morale, and save money in the long term.
To put it very simply, ergonomics is the science of creating a comfortable and efficient workplace environment, one that protects the safety and health of employees. A lack of attention to ergonomics can lead to a number of ailments in employees, among them pain, loss of grip strength, tenderness, swelling, numbness, tenderness or tingling.
Such conditions are often caused by working in awkward positions, overexertion when stretching, reaching, lifting or lowering, vibration and repetitive motions, to name just a few factors. While industrial jobs appear to be obvious settings for workplace injuries, it’s also important to be vigilant about preventing injuries in office settings as well. A computer monitor positioned incorrectly can lead to eyestrain or neck pain; a keyboard that isn’t positioned correctly can cause carpal tunnel syndrome; a chair without a backrest can lead to back pain.
Ergonomic injuries, or work-related musculoskeletal disorders, are, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, this country’s single largest job related injury and illness problem. One of the best-known ergonomic injuries is carpal tunnel syndrome (which isn’t limited to office workers; according to a 2001 Mayo Clinic study, it’s more prevalent among assemblers than among those who perform data entry), but there are many others, among them tendinitis, bursitis, muscle strain and traumatic injuries.
“Proper ergonomics for industrial settings is not only appropriate and relevant, but in fact, can be more important, versus an office situation, because the stakes can be higher,” says Steve M. Hoffmeister, PT, of Marshfield Clinic Minocqua Center. “Improper work conditions in, say, a manufacturing environment can lead to very serious injury or death. Proper use of lifts, hoists, jacks, variable height work benches and properly fitted tools are just some examples of things that can prevent life-altering injuries.”
Designing a job environment to fit an employee is what ergonomics is about, and its importance in the workplace can’t be overestimated. “Employers should be concerned about ergonomics in the workplace because ultimately, they can save a great deal of money, improve efficiency and productivity and have a happier, healthier work force,” says Hoffmeister.
Employers who suspect their employees may be susceptible to ergonomic injuries should assess their workplaces for the following risk factors: long periods of repetitive movement, repetitive heavy lifting, excessive vibration, lengthy and repetitive tasks with rest periods that are insufficient, a stressful work environment and uncomfortable conditions. Departments with high injury or illness rates may be indicators of an ergonomics problem.
“You can start by researching ergonomics via the Internet and make a lot of easy, no-cost or low-cost changes in the work place without any outside assistance or payout,” says Hoffmeister. Some examples of these changes, he continues, are ensuring that desks, chairs, computers and workbenches are at the proper heights and positions. Hoffmeister recommends checking with an outside ergonomics consultant for his or her evaluation and advice, unless, he says, “the work place is small and the ergonomic challenges are simple.”
Some ways to correct ergonomic problems include identifying the tasks that pose the biggest risks for injuries and devising modifications to them; changes in equipment; changes in administration, if necessary; training employees to learn different ways of doing their jobs; documenting the effectiveness of changes; and reassessment of those changes on a regular basis. Investments in upgraded equipment and training will be well worth it when a company isn’t paying out a fortune in workers’ compensation claims or spending money to recruit new workers.
“Ergonomics is not something that should need to be ‘sold,'” says Hoffmeister. “Common sense should dictate the relevance and importance of keeping our workforce safe, healthy, happy. The adage ‘work smarter, not harder’ has been around a lot longer than the study of ergonomics. Ergonomics is simply a common sense spin off of this philosophy. Save money, make money, have happy, healthy, productive employees. Win, win, win.”
Preventing ergonomic injuries in the office
Simple precautions can have big payoffs. By ensuring that employee work areas, whether in manufacturing or office settings, are designed to minimize strain, the risk of ergonomic injuries can be prevented. As an example, below are some tips for creating a more user-friendly office work station.
• Computer screen, keyboard, mouse and other desktop items: Position the computer monitor so that the top of the monitor isn’t above eye level. An employee should be able to read the screen without having to tilt his or her head backward or forward. Also, watch out for glare from lights or sunlight that can lead to eye strain. The keyboard should be positioned in such a manner that the employee doesn’t have to reach across the desk to type. It should be close enough to the edge of the desk that, when the employee is typing, his or her upper arms should be perpendicular to the floor and relaxed, the elbows should be as close to the body as possible and the forearms should be parallel to the floor. The keyboard should be positioned closely enough that the employee can type without strain to the hands, shoulders or neck. It should also be sloped enough that the hands and arms are in a comfortable position while typing. Specially designed ergonomic keyboards that ensure correct positioning of the hands are available. The mouse should be to the right or left of the keyboard, rather than in a location where the employee has to stretch to reach it. The telephone, rotary card file and other desktop items should also be positioned within easy reach.
• Seating: The chair should provide support to the lower back. The seat must be large enough to accommodate the employee comfortably, but not so large that it cuts into the back of the legs and knees while the employee is sitting. Armrests should provide support to the arms, but shouldn’t be in the way while the employee is typing. The thighs should be parallel to the floor, while the feet should rest comfortably on the floor. There should be sufficient space between the thighs and the desk or table.