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The modern office is set up to encourage you to work as long as possible without distractions or fatigue. Hidden behind all the niceties, however, are plenty of ergonomic hazards that can greatly impact your health over time. Ergonomics is the discipline of optimizing a user’s environment to minimize the likelihood of developing injuries. Employers are responsible for providing a safe and healthful workplace for their workers. In the workplace, the number and severity of Musculoskeletal Disorders resulting from physical overexertion, and their associated costs, can be substantially reduced by applying ergonomic principles.
Examples of Ergonomic Hazards at the Office and Solutions:
Poor Sitting Posture
Poor sitting posture may feel innocuous, even satisfying. Whether you’re slouching or leaning forward at your desk, there is a sense of relief as your core and lower back muscles relax. The problem is, that your spine ends up working overtime to pick up the slack.
Poor sitting posture such as a kyphosis posture exerts uneven pressure on your spine This is a recipe for spinal dysfunction, premature joint degeneration, nerve pinching, and even chronic back pain.
Solution: Practice a Neutral Sitting Posture
A neutral sitting posture is where the natural curvature in the three sections of your spine (cervical, thoracic, and lumbar spine) is preserved and balanced when you sit. In this position, the spine is best able to handle and distribute any weight placed on it.
To achieve a neutral spine, check in on your sitting posture from time to time for the following:
- The back should be straight with a slight lordosis (inward curve) in the lower spine
- Neck and head upright (ears aligned with your shoulders)
- Shoulders should be pulled back but relaxed
- No twisting or leaning on one side
- Knees bent at 90° and positioned slightly lower than the hips
Closely related to the first item above is awkward postures in general. These are unnatural body positions that you assume when bending, twisting, and overreaching. These postures push the joints past the mid-range of motion, leaving you a lot more susceptible to ergonomic injuries.
Examples of awkward postures at the office include looking down at your monitor, extending your wrists to type, or overreaching to operate the mouse.
Solution: Optimize your Workstation to Minimize Awkward Postures
To address awkward postures when you work, do an audit of your workstation to make sure it’s properly optimized:
- Adjust the height of your monitor so the top line is at eye level.
- Adjust the height of your chair so your elbows are at an open angle (90 -110 degrees) when typing.
- Organize your workspace into zones and keep frequently accessed items within arms reach.
- Set your armrests to desk level to help you more easily maintain neutral wrists.
- Swivel your chair instead of twisting your waist when rotating your body.
- Use the speaker function instead of holding up your phone using your arm or shoulder.
Prolonged Stationary Position
One of the biggest silent killers at the workplace (and home) is a sedentary lifestyle. This is when we stay in the same position every day for many hours on end. At the office, this typically takes the form of sitting in a chair.
Assuming a stationary position for a long time sets in motion a series of changes in our bodies. This includes a drop in metabolism, muscle atrophy, rise in bad cholesterol, and resistance to insulin. According to statistics, a sedentary lifestyle increases certain types of cancer by 66%, and diabetes by 112%.
Solution: Take Frequent Microbreaks
The solution to this ergonomic hazard is easy – take frequent microbreaks. These refer to small breaks that last anywhere from 30 seconds to 5 minutes, performed at least once every 30 minutes. Use this time to get up, stretch, and move your body.
Frequent, Repetitive Movements
Performing repetitive motions repeatedly, however small, can cause microtrauma to the surrounding tendons and tissues, leading to inflammation and eventually dysfunction.
At the office, the most common repetitive movements are performed by your fingers, wrist and arm. When you operate a mouse for example, you’re performing hundreds of small windshield movements with your wrist daily. This is made worse if you’re assuming an awkward position, which can occur if you’re using a horizontal mouse and have to pronate your forearm to grasp the mouse.
Solution: Take frequent breaks, minimize awkward postures
The key to disrupting the damage caused by repetitive movements is two fold:
- Rest the affected area periodically: This allows your body to repair any microtrauma before it passes the point of no return. Frequently switch tasks to utilize different muscle groups and joints without affecting your productivity.
- Eliminate awkward positions: Repetitive motions are greatly exasperated when they are done in an awkward position. When typing and mousing, pick ergonomic peripherals that help you maintain neutral wrists easier, such as a split pane keyboard and a vertical mouse.
Insufficient lighting, unwanted dark spots and shadows, glare, and improper color temperature are some of the most common examples of poor lighting at work. They can negatively impact your vision, mood, and even productivity.
Solution: Check the lighting in your workspace to make sure it conforms to good lighting ergonomics. This includes:
- Arrange your office so that you get as much natural light as possible.
- Make sure that there’s adequate lighting (300 – 500 lux) around your immediate workspace.
- Use a combination of direct and indirect lighting to eliminate shadows.
- Position your chair at a right angle from big windows to reduce glare
- Optimize your computer screen for good color and lighting contrast
- Add diffusers to light fixtures to make them less harsh on the eyes.
- Use monitor filters or computer glasses to reduce blue light and glare.
Implementing an ergonomic process is effective in reducing the risk of developing MSDs in high-risk industries as diverse as construction, food processing, firefighting, office jobs, healthcare, transportation and warehousing. The following are important elements of an ergonomic process:
Provide Management Support - A strong commitment by management is critical to the overall success of an ergonomic process. Management should define clear goals and objectives for the ergonomic process, discuss them with their workers, assign responsibilities to designated staff members, and communicate clearly with the workforce.
Involve Workers - A participatory ergonomic approach, where workers are directly involved in worksite assessments, solution development and implementation is the essence of a successful ergonomic process. Workers can:
Identify and provide important information about hazards in their workplaces.
Assist in the ergonomic process by voicing their concerns and suggestions for reducing exposure to risk factors and by evaluating the changes made as a result of an ergonomic assessment.
Provide Training - Training is an important element in the ergonomic process. It ensures that workers are aware of ergonomics and its benefits, become informed about ergonomics-related concerns in the workplace, and understand the importance of reporting early symptoms of MSDs.
Identify Problems - An important step in the ergonomic process is to identify and assess ergonomic problems in the workplace before they result in MSDs.
Encourage Early Reporting of MSD Symptoms - Early reporting can accelerate the job assessment and improvement process, helping to prevent or reduce the progression of symptoms, the development of serious injuries, and subsequent lost-time claims.
Implement Solutions to Control Hazards - There are many possible solutions that can be implemented to reduce, control or eliminate workplace MSDs.