When it comes to ergonomics, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure". Even a little preventative effort will often pay off. Putting the time, energy and resources into creating and maintaining an ergonomically friendly workplace environment will result in a happier, healthier, and more productive workforce.
With the proliferation and reliance on computer applications and electronic communications, many corporate employees work long hours on the computer. Sitting for long periods of time in front of a computer can lead to postural imbalances that ultimately result in or worsen existing repetitive strain injuries such as Upper Limb Disorders (ULDs) and Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSDs).
For purposes of this review, we'll address ULD since they are the most common micro-trauma injuries that result from excessive and improper computer usage. There are nearly two-dozen strain injuries that fall into the category of ULDs. ULDs can affect the neck and shoulders, as well as arms, hands, wrists, fingers or elbows. ULD are painful, disruptive to daily activities -- and thankfully completely preventable.
If caught early enough, mostly of these injuries can be safely rehabilitated without any long-term impact. There are several preventative initiatives wellness professionals can execute to minimize the risks of ULDs. Even small-scale awareness programs can have a significant impact if the entire company is on board.
Here is an outline of a high-level plan to safety proof a corporate office setting. Please note that this article focuses on corporate office environments in which computers and devices (such as a mouse and a keyboard) are classified as the high-risk equipment. Manufacturing environments and industrial facilities operating high-risk equipment need a much more intensive safety plan. Ergonomic Wellness Plan Outline
- Perform a risk assessment
- Reduce risks
- Educate and inform employees
- Evaluate plan and reinforce communications
1. Perform a Risk Assessment
To begin, evaluate your corporate environment to assess employees at risk for injury. At this stage, it is good idea to survey employees on specific job functions, tasks, time-to-complete tasks and time on the computer, PDAs and smartphones.
Here you will identify employees working more than half their day on the computer -- or even on their Blackberry ("Blackberry thumb" is becoming increasingly common). Carefully audit workstations to assess whether they meet ergonomic guidelines and provide what is called an "ergonomically correct seat".
This stage of the process can be daunting but an accurate assessment is essential to execute a successful plan.
2. Reduce Risk
Once a proper assessment is made, it is time to focus on reducing your office risk. Employees identified, as high risk will need special attention. There are a number of ways to address these high-risk cases. Job roles may be restructured or job tasks shared. It is important that employees whose work involves intensive repetitive tasks take regular breaks away from their workstations.
A field sales force or telecommuting staff will always need special attention as laptops were designed to be portable -- not ergonomically friendly. Laptop users tend to have more widespread complaints of ergonomic disorders. Again, excessive typing on small keyboards, such as those found on PDAs and smartphones, is a risk as well.
A majority of your office-based employees will get significant relief from changing the way you configure and organize their workstations. Here are some common guidelines for configuring an ergonomically correct seat.
- Define ergonomic workplace standards. If it isn't corporate policy, it probably isn't happening. These standards will keep workers safe when working at their computers.
- Configure workstations and equipment to suit the workers using them. Set up the station based on the person. Are they right or left handed? Tall or short? Desk height and chair height are important factors in maintaining good postural alignment. Configure workstations for new employees so that:
- They can sit with the spine lengthened and neck long and slightly tucked
- They can tilt and adjust the height of the seat so the pelvis is angled slightly forward and knees are slightly lower than the level of hips.
- Hands, wrists, and forearms are straight and almost parallel to the floor
- The head and torso is in-line, with the head slightly bent forward, facing toward the front
- Shoulders are at ease with upper arms hanging normally at the sides of the body.
- Elbows are close to the body and bent between 90 and 110 degrees
Other ways to ensure an ergonomically correct workstation is to make sure that desktop supplies are kept within reach, and that workers who are on the phone a great deal use headsets. Proper lighting is also important. ULDs can result from people adopting unusual positions to avoid glare, or to see better.
3. Educate and Inform Your Employees
Employee education is a critical stage in ULD prevention. Educating employees on preventive tips and guidelines will empower your office workforce to work safely and stay symptom free.
Demonstrating ways to avoid injuries, adjust their station and perform stretches will always be more effective than a verbal presentation. Employees will retain more when they hear and see preventative guidelines demonstrated. Here is what typically needs to be covered:
- Postural education. How to sit, adjust your seat and interact with your workstation. Reinforce all safety guidelines addressed in the configuration set-up above
- When to take breaks and what to do during a break
- General fitness recommendations for upper body strength, alignment refinement and flexibility. This helps keep the body upright and strong, eliminating risk of ULDs
- Stretches to do throughout the day to stay symptom free (chair yoga is a popular choice)
- Early detection, warning signs and symptoms of ULDs and what to do if you experience them
4. Evaluate Plan and Reinforce Communications
As you conclude the education phase of the project, remember to survey your workers on results. Their feedback is an important source of information. Be sure to design your survey to identify whether ergonomic policy changes and education has improved their quality of work life. Keep monitoring working conditions and review your risk assessment on a regular basis. Continue to commit to ongoing ergonomic education.
This will be an effective refresher for existing employees, and will keep new employees safe and productive. Document program results and reinforce and keep management up to speed. As budget permits, work with the buyers in your organization to procure more ergonomic friendly equipment to further reduce risk and better rehabilitate at-risk employees.
Buy ergonomically smart products -- input devices, such as keyboards and mouses, are a good place to start. Headsets are another important widespread purchase. If the whole ergonomics initiative seems too cumbersome to attack there is a host of outsourced resources to help you along the way.
You can also form a committee to keep the initiative top of mind and supported. Putting the time, energy and resources into creating and maintaining an ergonomically friendly workplace environment will result in a happier, healthier, and more productive workforce. Kristin Deyle is Founder and Program Director of Unity Wellness Group, LLC. Unity Wellness Group is an innovative, and caring mind-body wellness company devoted to helping companies value and optimize their human capital potential.
Unity provides effective and enjoyable wellness programs that reduce employee stress and enhance work performance and overall health and vitality while contributing to corporate profitability. Many of Unity's wellness programs work with evidence-proven mind-body techniques to minimize, manage and prevent health issues.
Our programs provide employees with successful wellness tools they can use for life. Unity also offers powerful training programs that help improve mindfulness on the job and optimize mental capacities and emotional intelligence to enhance creativity, concentration, brain function and work performance.