Is Your Office a Danger Zone for Your Employees?
In January 2010, the media quickly hopped onto the "sitting can kill you" bandwagon after a research study that was published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine suggested that even people who regularly exercise were at an increased risk of injury or death if they sat most of the day. The Canadian study covered in the British Journal article suggested that "after four hours of sitting, the body starts to send harmful signals that cause the genes regulating glucose and fat in the body to shut down" (Ekblom-Bak, 2010).
This is why even those who exercised regularly were still at increased risk. Hundreds of articles have been written since then on the topic, all presuming this is a major revelation. Sadly it is not new news. Researchers have known this for more than 40 years. Workers who use a fixed seated position all day are more uncomfortable and suffer more often from chronic disorders (Graf et al, 1993, 1995). Recent research studies indicate that people who sit long hours are more likely to be obese, have a heart attack, or die.
Other health problems that arise from lack of movement include arthritis, inflamed tendons, impaired circulation, and chronic joint degeneration (Grandjean, 1987). A study in 1975 found that workers over 35 that spend more than half their day sitting had a higher rate of herniated discs (Kelsey, 1975).Sitting isn't the only cause of injury in the office, the tools your workers use - keyboards, mice, and monitors can also create health problems.
During 1998 alone, an estimated 3 out of 10,000 employees lost work time due to carpal tunnel syndrome. Half of these people were out of work for more than 10 days. The average lifetime cost for a single case of carpal tunnel syndrome, if surgery is required, is $90K - $175K including both medical costs and lost time from work, and $24K - $60K without surgery (USDOL, 2010). The cost of lower productivity is not included in this number but a computer user experiencing pain puts off their tasks for 5 minutes out of every 15 minutes worked. This lost productivity adds up to over 13 hours per week.
Employers lose billions each year in both direct and indirect costs due to these injuries. The costs associated with occupational injury and related illness cost employers as much as diabetes did in 2005 (Leigh, 2008). If your company's wellness program does not include a strong ergonomics program, you're missing a key component of creating a healthier and more productive workforce.
The Good News
The good news that many of these injuries are preventable when a good ergonomics program is in place, workstations are setup for healthy working conditions, and employees are given appropriate education so they use equipment properly and participate in behaviors that lower risk, such as taking regular stretch breaks or standing part of the day.
Office ergonomics reduce worker's compensation claims, lower overall health insurance costs, and increase employee productivity, all of which can have a huge positive impact on your firm's bottom line. An added bonus - employees who are not in pain and who feel their employer is invested in their health and well-being are happier, which reduces employee turnover. The return on investment for ergonomic programs is excellent. According to the Wellness Council of America, $3 is saved in health care costs for every $1 invested.
Designing a healthier, ergonomic office environment doesn't have to be expensive or difficult, however I will begin with an important caveat - a product labeled as ergonomic may, or may not be ergonomic and even if it is, it may not be the best choice for a specific user. A well-designed, ergonomic workstation fits the worker and is designed to minimize stress on the body. As people come in different sizes and have different work styles, there is no "one size fits all" solution.The chair is the most critical part of the puzzle.
Seek out well-constructed chairs that offer many points of adjustment. Adjustments should include: seat depth, seat height, back angle, lumbar support, and arms that are both height and width adjustable. Chairs selected should fit the majority of employees. If you select chairs from one of the manufacturers that offers modularity, then simple modifications such as changing a seat pan or chair height cylinder can allow for easy adaptation of existing chairs to new employees.
Employees that are petite, taller than 6'3" or over 250 lbs. Will need chairs designed to fit their respective statures. A number of great companies offer chairs that meet all these requirements including Soma Ergonomics, Neutral Posture, and Bodybilt.Keyboards and mice should be as close to the body as possible to minimize reaching and the risk of arms resting on desk edges.
For many workers a height adjustable desk and/or an adjustable keyboard tray is recommended to bring the keyboard to a level that allows the arms to be level with the floor when shoulders are in a relaxed position. Monitors should be positioned so they can be easily viewed without straining the neck forward, back, or down and about arm's length away from the eyes. Desk lamps may be needed to provide workers with adequate lighting and can reduce the dependence on harsh overhead fluorescent lighting.
Most computer workers will benefit from an ergonomic keyboard and mouse. The keyboard should be positioned so the wrists do not extend upward. A downward, away from the body (negative tilt) is recommended by many ergonomists; this is best accomplished with an articulating keyboard tray. A wide variety of excellent products are available to fit anyone's requirements.
Laptop computers present significant ergonomic problems because it is not possible to have the keyboard and screen in a healthy position at the same time, thus they should not be used "as is" for long periods of time. These problems can best be handled by elevating the laptop to a comfortable viewing height with a stand or laptop arm and the use of an external keyboard and mouse. Using an external keyboard and mouse has the added benefits of being able to use a good quality ergonomic keyboard with full sized keys, softer key pressure and healthier positioning.
Don't Forget Your Remote Workers
"Out of sight and out of mind" should not apply when it comes to the health of your employees. Home workers should be provided with the necessary equipment and education to work in a healthy manner. Traveling workers need appropriately equipped, mobile laptop equipment such as a portable laptop stand, travel keyboard, and mouse, plus a good bag to carry it all in. It's advisable to consider issuing either a laptop case with wheels or a well-designed laptop backpack to minimize the stress of carrying a computer. Workers that drive need headsets for their phones.
Getting upper management to agree to fund a quality ergonomics program can sometimes be challenging. Be prepared to show current needs and costs, as well as expected savings. Use of an ergonomics software program such as Comfort Zone by ibr can give health and safety personnel the needed information to target urgent needs and develop cost effective ergonomic programs that resolve and prevent injuries, as well as monitor the results of the program.
If your company does not have an in-house expert, it is absolutely worthwhile to invest in the expertise of an ergonomist to ensure your program meets your employees' needs and does so in a cost efficient manner. Unlike many other components to a corporate health and wellness program, investments in ergonomics typically deliver a return on investment in just a few months.
Ergonomics Programs Deliver
Numerous research reports have been done that prove the value and payback of ergonomics programs. One example, Blue Cross Blue Shield Rhode Island implemented an ergonomics program in March 2000. An ergonomic team was created and workstation changes were implemented. Changes included installing ergonomic keyboard trays, moving or adjusting desks, changing furniture vendors to those that offered appropriately ergonomic furniture, and giving employees a phone headset.
First year results represented a 70% decrease in lost work days and a 25% reduction in worker's compensation cases. By the end of the third year, worker's compensation cases had dropped from 8 in 1999 to only 1 by 2002. Lost work days had dropped from 345 to 89 (USDOL, 2010). In summary, an ergonomics program is an important and necessary component in any employee wellness program that delivers results in a very short time period.
Creating a healthy and comfortable work place can reap huge financial rewards by increasing productivity, reducing employee turnover, and reducing health care and worker's compensation insurance rates. When it comes to ergonomic programs, an ounce of prevention is worth far more than a pound of cure.
1) Ekblom-Bak, E. (2010) British Journal of Sports Medicine.
2) Graf, M, Guggenbuhl, U. and Krueger, H. (1993) Investigations on the effects of seat shape and slope on posture, comfort and back muscle activity. International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics, 12 (1-2), 91-103.
3) Graf, M, Guggenbuhl, U. and Krueger, H. (1995) An assessment of seated activity and postures at five workplaces. International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics, 15 (2), 81-90.
4) Grandjean, E. (1987). Ergonomics in computerized offices. London: Taylor and Francis. 96-156.
5) Kelsey J. L. (1975). An epidemiological study of the relationship between occupations and acute herniated lumbar intervertebral discs.Int J Epidemiology. 4(3): 197-205.
6) Leigh, J. P. (2008) Cost of occupational injury and illness combining all industries, Powerpoint presentation for 11/3/2008 seminar for Western Center for Agriculture Health and Safety
7) National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.(2010). Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Fact Sheet. Retrieved from: http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/carpal_tunnel/detail_carpal_tunnel.htm
8) US Department of Labor (2010) Blue Cross Blue Shield Rhode Island. Retrieved from: http://www.osha.gov/dcsp/success_stories/compliance_assistance/abbott/blue_cross.html
About the Author
Lori Appleman is the Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Ergoprise. Ergoprise is a certified, woman-owned, multi-brand provider of high quality office, mobile, and industrial ergonomic tools, located in Austin, Texas. Through the showroom, website, and sale team, Ergoprise offers a broad range of ergonomic products that have been selected to provide workers with a comfortable working environment; and to deliver an excellent return on investment.
Ergoprise's mission is to build awareness of the importance and value of ergonomics, as well as the products that create a healthy workspace, prevent repetitive stress injuries (RSI), and provide for worker's comfort. ContactLori Appleman Ergoprise.com email@example.com 877-907-8688