Use your head to save backs — and bucks

If you or your workers spend a portion of each day working at a computer, a desk, or other type of workstation, repetitive motions, posture, and back, arm and wrist support all play significant roles in physical health and wellness. Proper chair type, size and design, workstation height, location of keyboards, phones, shelves, and tools can contribute to body fatigue, muscle strain, repetitive-motion injuries, and other debilitating factors affecting work and quality of life.

Ergonomics is the scientific discipline concerned with the understanding of interactions among humans with other elements of a system. It’s particularly relevant in the design of things such as safe furniture and easy-to-use interfaces with machines and equipment. Proper ergonomic design is necessary to prevent repetitive strain injuries and other musculoskeletal disorders, which can develop over time and lead to long-term disability.

Ergonomics examines the “fit” between the user, equipment and their environments. It takes account of the user’s capabilities and limitations to ensure that tasks, functions, information and the environment suit each user. To assess the fit between a person and the technology, ergonomists consider the job (activity) being done and the demands on the user; the equipment used (its size, shape, and how appropriate it is for the task), and the information used (how it is presented, accessed, and changed).

Proper ergonomics may prevent musculoskeletal injuries (such as back strain or carpal tunnel syndrome) by reducing physical and mental stress caused by the workstation setup. By focusing on the physical setup of workstations and the tools employees use, employers can reduce chances of injuries. It also is important to evaluate the work process, including job organization, worker rotation, task variety, and demands for speed and quality.

Working intensely over long periods of time without taking breaks can greatly increase the risk for musculoskeletal injuries. Taking regular breaks from work and doing stretching exercises may reduce the risk of repetitive motion injuries. For example, it’s advised that workers try taking three- to five-minute breaks or change tasks every 20 to 40 minutes. Here are some tips to improve workstation safety and efficiency:

  • Arrange work so you (or a worker) can sit or stand comfortably in a position that does not put stress on any specific area of the body. You should be able to keep your neck in a neutral position and minimize the need to look up or to the sides continuously while you are working.
  • Eliminate most movement from the waist. Keep the workstation and workstation tools within reach without having to lean, bend, or twist at the waist frequently.
  • Vary postures if possible.
  • Take 10- to 15-second breaks frequently throughout tasks. For example, look away from the computer monitor or machine, stand up, or stretch arms and legs. Short breaks also reduce eyestrain and buildup of muscle tension.
  • Stretch your body by getting up out of your chair and stretching your arms, shoulders, back, and legs. When you are sitting, shrug and relax your shoulders, and if you have a chance to take short walks, do so whenever possible.
  • If you do similar work or activities at home, be sure to apply these principles there as well to avoid the cumulative effect of repetitive motions.

For office workers, particularly, there are a variety of preventive solutions that can help limit or avoid muscular discomfort or injuries. Computer monitors, for example, should be easy to see without having to lean forward or look up to one side. They should be placed at a height where the top of the screen is at eye level or within 15 degrees below eye level, and less than an arm’s length from the user.

Protection against eyestrain can prevent headaches and vision problems. Glare guards can be placed over the monitor screen, and plasma screens reduce glare. Additionally, many keyboards and keyboard trays have wrist supports to help keep wrists in a neutral, almost straight position. But wrist pads are just there for brief rests. They are not meant to be used while typing, even though some people find they help even during keying.

It’s important to have a computer keyboard and keyboard tray that allows comfortable typing or keying, and it should be at a height that allows elbows to be bent about 90 degrees and close to your sides. Also, when you type, try raising your wrists from the support so your wrists are in a neutral position. You may want to alternate between resting your wrists on the supports and raising them up. Also, a computer mouse or pointing device that does not require a lot of forearm movement or force, such as a trackball mouse or touch pad, is more comfortable than a standard mouse for some people.

Of vital importance is the comfort and design of the office or workplace chair, which should maintain normal spinal curvature. A supportive chair:

  • Is adjustable, so that you can set the height to rest feet flat on the floor. Keep feet supported on the floor or on a footrest to reduce pressure on the lower back. Some people like to sit in a slightly reclined position because it puts less stress on the back, although this may increase stress on the shoulders and neck when they reach for items.
  • Supports the lower back.
  • Has adjustable armrests that allow elbows to stay close your sides. If you are not comfortable with armrests, move them out of your way. It is still important to keep your arms close to your sides even if you choose not to use armrests.
  • Has a breathable, padded seat.
  • Rolls on five wheels for easy movement without tipping.

These and many other ergonomic principles available online and through facilities consultants and workplace-design specialists will help ensure a healthier workplace and workers that are more comfortable and less prone to workplace-related injuries. Investing properly in worker comfort is more than a simple amenity – it will improve morale, safety and productivity, and reduce worker’s compensation costs and absenteeism.

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If you’re not enjoying the benefits of a wellness program at your company, join CBIA Healthy Connections at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!