Guide to Ergonomics at the Office and in the Field

Feb. 1, 2008
With basic knowledge about risky work behaviors and ergonomic workstation design, facilities professionals can help both computer-bound tenants/occupants and their on-the-job employees avoid work-related injuries.  This guide to ergonomics in the office and the field can help.

Work can be a real pain in the neck sometimes - literally. Unfortunately, the tasks you perform every day can take a physical toll on your body if you're not carefful. In 2000, the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) reported that nearly 2 million workers in the United States suffer from work-related musculoskeletal  disorders (WMSDs) every year. Ergonomics is the best preventive medicine. "It increases people's effectiveness and reduces turnover and lost work time," says Rani Lueder, principal, Humanics ErgoSystems Inc., Encino, CA.

Facilities professionals are in a unique position to help office-working tenants/occupants, as well as their own team  members, avoid repetitive stress injuries, occupational overuse syndrome, and WMSDs. By making informed decisions about ergonomic office furniture and creating an overall awareness about neutral body postures and safe behavior on the job, workers at both a computer and in a physical plant can enjoy prolonged health.

Ergonomic Computer Work (view graphics)
Workstations. Even though most office workers use the same tools (phones, keyboards, monitors, etc.), their work can be very different, and just as diverse are the shapes and sizes of these individuals. It's important to remember that there is no one-size-fits-all workstation. Height-adjustable workstations are ideal, but can be expensive. If fixed-height workstations are more in line with your budget, keep the following advice in mind: "Designing for the average is out. When you design for the average, you limit the most," says Kent Hatcher, senior consultant and ergonomics engineer, Humantech Inc., Ann Arbor, MI. Instead, he recommends purchasing products for the extremes. For instance, select a workstation with a desk height that can accommodate the tallest individuals. "If the 6-foot-5-inch person can fit underneath it, everybody can fit underneath it," he says. Pair this with a height-adjustable chair, a keyboard tray, and a footrest for shorter workers.

With respect to reach distance, the same type of rule applies. Make sure the most petite person can reach workstation components (the worksurface shouldn't be too deep for an individual to comfortably reach the phone). Corner workstations (as opposed to standard desks or L-shaped configurations) can be ideal for keeping everything within reach. "It's much easier to maintain a neutral posture when you're working at a corner worksurface. It takes less reach and you have more depth behind you," explains Lueder.

Seating. Task seating should be selected carefully; it can positively (or negatively, if poor choices are made) impact circulation and posture. Ergonomic chairs have the following features in common: seat-pan-height adjustability; seat backs that move up and down, move backward and forward, and flex with body movement; a waterfall design on the seat front (slightly concave with a softly padded round edge); armrests that raise and lower, and can be pulled toward or away from the user's body; the ability to swivel; and casters.

Encourage tenants/occupants to change posture periodically. "Even sitting up nice and straight with the spine properly supported isn't appropriate for long periods of time," says Hatcher. A simple reminder can be set on users' computer calendars to provide a cue. "Take 2 to 5 minutes every 2 hours to get up, move around, and stretch. Also, take this opportunity to slowly open and close your eyes," suggests Rachel McKelvey, ergonomic consultant, ErgoDynamics Inc., Decatur, AL.

Ergonomic components. Footrests, keyboard trays, document holders, and mouse and keyboard wrist pads can alleviate strain; however, not all of these solutions need to be standard offerings. For example, despite your good ergonomic intentions, adding a keyboard tray to a desk meant for a tall worker might actually increase discomfort. "Keyboard trays are useless for those with long legs. They cannot put their legs completely under the desk, creating back issues," explains McKelvey. Discuss what components will be universally beneficial and what should be purchased based on need.

Ergonomic Field Work (view graphics)
Computer-bound workers experience discomfort and injury when postures are held for long periods of time and/or when the same body motions are repeated over and over. The same is true for individuals who don't sit behind a desk all day. McKelvey offers the following advice to these professionals: "Stagger work tasks to utilize different postures for shorter periods of time. Take a portable stool to eliminate static back bend." Always lift with your legs, not with your back, and, she adds, "try not to work with your arms over your head for more than 30 minutes at a time." Also, remember, even standing in place can be hard on the body and cause swelling in the legs, ankles, and feet. Whenever standing is necessary for prolonged periods, place a rubber or padded mat on the floor to reduce fatigue.

Provide employees with a basic education on spine mechanics and harmful behaviors. A little bit of training increases awareness and helps employees recognize when they're putting themselves at risk. "The type of education that's provided for these people has to be created and driven by the people who actually do the job, and has to take place out in the field," says Hatcher. People who are "doers" will retain the information better if you show them instead of tell them in a classroom- type setting. Training should address the following:

  • Ways to avoid unnecessary physical stress and strain.
  • The physical capabilities of each worker (determine lifting capacity, etc.). 
  • Proper use of equipment.
  • How to recognize the early symptoms of a WMSD.

It's important to offer training when an employee starts a new job, when new procedures and equipment are introduced, or when ergonomic risk factors have been discovered.

If in-house crews, maintenance workers, and building engineers have felt aches and pains on the job, encourage them to report the cause of their discomfort. "Try to involve employees in any ergonomic-improvement decisions. They know the job best and will give the most valuable input," says McKelvey. Individuals may be so used to the way a task has always been done that they might have accepted the discomfort or the frustration it has caused. Challenge them to think of suggestions for how routine tasks, the work environment, equipment, and tools can be changed to eliminate unhealthy body postures.

"It's theoretically possible to engineer out 100 percent of ergonomic risk," shares Hatcher. For example, instead of training someone to lift a heavy item off the floor properly, Hatcher suggests that the first option is to store the item where the person doesn't have to bend over at all. Consider the placement of equipment that must be checked and serviced regularly: Can it be accessed without strain? Are ergonomic tools and aids (platforms, steps, handles, kneepads, wheels) available? Conduct a risk assessment to identify how rearranging, modifying, or redesigning equipment, parts, and processes can reduce the likelihood of a work-related injury.

 REACH ZONES: Place frequently used devices within comfortable reach. The keyboard and computer monitor should be located directly in front of the body. The mouse should be positioned next to the keyboard. Placement of the phone depends on how often it's used.
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MONITOR-VIEWING DISTANCE: To adjust the monitor, users should slowly move it toward them until they can view text on the screen comfortably. Preferred viewing distance is usually between 20 and 40 inches from the eye to the front of the computer screen. The top of the monitor should be at or slightly below eye level.
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WRIST POSITIONS: When typing, wrists should not be bent up, down, or to the sides. They should remain in a neutral position (kept in line with the arms). A wrist rest can help users keep wrists straight.
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SEAT HEIGHT: When seated with feet flat on the ground (or supported by a footrest), legs should be bent at a 90-degree angle. The seat should be at or slightly above knee height.
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FOOTRESTS: Feet should never dangle unsupported. If a chair has to be adjusted higher for a petite user to work effectively at a fixedheight workstation, a footrest (or two) is necessary.
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WORKSTATION HEIGHT: Users should be able to fit their legs under the worksurface without coming in contact with any supports. When various users must be accommodated, purchase adjustable height workstations or fixed-height workstations that can accommodate the tallest users. In the latter situation, petite users must be provided with an adjustable task chair, a footrest, and a keyboard tray.
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 LIFTING: To lift a heavy object from the ground, an individual should stand close to the load. He/she should squat with the object placed between both knees and get a firm grip. When picking up the load, leg muscles should be engaged. The object should be kept close to the body and the back should be straight. Abdominal muscles should be used when rising.
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BENDING OVER: To prevent the back pain that results from bending over repeatedly or for a long duration, technicians should carry a portable stool. Working in a seated position can help avoid discomfort due to static back bend.
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STANDING: Even standing with a neutral posture for long periods of time is unhealthy. Where it cannot be avoided, anti-fatigue mats should be placed underfoot. Users should sit down for a few minutes regularly, shift positions frequently, or, while standing, rest one foot on a stool or curb (alternating to the other foot after a few minutes).
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Jana J. Madsen ([email protected]) is managing editor at Buildings magazine.

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