We spend most of our adult lives working, so the ergonomics of our workplaces are extremely important.
Without good workplace ergonomics, we are at risk of developing musculoskeletal disorders, having a reduced quality of life, and missing work.
Musculoskeletal disorders are a serious cause of physical pain and discomfort as well as missed work and limited work capacity, but what to workplace ergonomics have to do with the development of musculoskeletal disorders?
Poor workplace ergonomics lead to repeated strain and poor posture that can cause a number of serious conditions. By contrast, good workplace ergonomics can help workers lead fulfilling careers without the development of pain or disability.
Whether you are a worker who wants to make sure you have the most ergonomic workplace possible or you are an employer who wants to provide a work environment in which your employees remain happy, healthy, and coming to work, here's what you need to know about workplace ergonomics, how poor ergonomics can lead to musculoskeletal disorders, and what you can do about it.
Did you know..?
Labor statistics & studies have shown workplace design and practicing critical ergonomic principles is one of the most important aspects of creating a productive and comfortable workspace!
What is the Study of Ergonomics?
Ergonomics means designing for human beings. Ergonomics takes into account our physicality, habits, behaviors, and needs to design a workplace that is well-suited for humans.
Everything from the lighting, to the positioning of work equipment, to the organization of workers’ schedules contribute to ergonomics. To create a good ergonomic workplace, equipment must be able to be adjusted to individual people’s needs. The importance of ergonomics should be made clear by management and built-in to daily work.
Understanding Ergonomic Stressors
Not every job is as likely to lead to ergonomic problems as others. Some workplaces make it more likely that employees will suffer from musculoskeletal disorders and other conditions. Here is a test of how likely a job is to have poor workplace ergonomics and lead to musculoskeletal disorders:
- Greater force needed to perform a task
- Static and awkward postures taken when completing a task
- How repetitive a task is
What are Musculoskeletal Disorders?
Musculoskeletal disorders, or MSDs, involve a number of different injuries and strains to various areas of the body. Your blood vessels, muscles, ligaments, tendons, and nerves may all be affected.
Anyone who lifts, strains, reaches, pushes, or works in difficult body postures in a repetitive way is likely to be at risk for an MSD. Here are a few examples of MSDs:
- Lower back injuries and muscle strains
- Stenosing tenosynovitis, commonly known as trigger finger
- Shoulder rotator cuff injury
- Elbow epicondylitis
- Carpal tunnel
Symptoms of MSD
MSD comes in a wide range of different forms, so it should come as no surprise that not every condition feels the same. However, there are some symptoms that often predict MSD:
- Frequent and isolated pain. If you always have pain in the same area when you are working or when a workday is over, it can be a strong indication of a precursor of MSD and is a sign that your body is telling you to relieve strain on the area.
- Stiffness. Stiffness in your joints and muscles shows that you are not moving around enough or flexing sufficiently during your workday. It indicates that a problem in the joint may begin.
- Shooting pain. Sudden bolts of pain through your wrist, back, or neck are a strong indication that something in your posture is going wrong and may indicate more serious problems developing.
- Swelling. Swelling in an area can be a sign of inflammation, which may suggest damage even if it's not painful.
- Strength loss. If you find that you feel weak in a particular area or have an overall weakness when sitting or standing, you may not be positioned ergonomically enough.
Who is Most Likely to Suffer From a Musculoskeletal Disorder Due to Workplace Economic Problems?
- Nurses and those involved in the nursing industry
- Firefighters, police, and first responders
- Laborers and anyone who needs to move heavy weights
- Cleaners and janitors
- Drivers, both long-distance such as truck drivers and frequent drivers like delivery drivers
- Factory and production workers
- Maintenance work and refuse collection
- Installers, including plumbers, air conditioning technicians, etc.
How do MSDs Affect the Workplace?
As many as 33% of all injuries and illnesses reported by workers were caused by MSDS. They are also the cause of the most restricted work time and lost work time. Needless to say, developing an ergonomic workplace is extremely important for both workers and companies.
How to Improve Workplace Ergonomics
There are lots of things that can be done to reduce the number of workers affected by MSD and how severe their symptoms are. Here are some essential ways to improve ergonomics in the workplace:
If management is encouraging employees to get work done as quickly as possible, ergonomics are likely to be put by the wayside. Therefore, there needs to be a strong initiative throughout all levels of management to focus on ergonomics even ahead of productivity.
After all, having to pay a worker that is injured because of a workplace ergonomics problem while they are limited in their ability to work or unable to work will be much more damaging to the company than a little bit of lost time to focus on ergonomics. It is up to management to put a structure into place that maintains ergonomics.
Workers may not like being told to make huge changes in their daily work, especially if it slows them down or if they find it physically straining to make the change. To keep workers interested in the ergonomics that management has put into place, active development of worker commitment is very important. Here are a few ways to make sure workers are committed to an ergonomic workplace:
- Train. If employees do not understand the importance of ergonomics, they are unlikely to remain committed to an ergonomic workplace. If workers don't know how to put ergonomic practices into place appropriately, the workplace won't be ergonomic even though management and employees are trying to make it that way.
- Request feedback. Don't wait for employees to complain about a flaw in the ergonomic management or structure. Constantly ask for their feedback about how the program is going, how they feel, and how ergonomic they believe their workday to be.
- Eliminate barriers to early reporting. The best way to treat an MSD is to catch it as early as possible. In the very early stages of some MSDs, simply correcting an ergonomic issue may be sufficient treatment, without requiring limited work time, out time, or medical intervention. To make sure employees report issues as soon as they occur, provide incentives and make sure there aren't going to be any negative consequences for reporting.
One overlooked factor of a great organized workplace is a creative management team and workforce. It isn't always easy to find ways to solve problems ergonomically, and the most traditional approaches aren't always the best.
Be willing to listen to ideas, even if they sound unusual. Many employers scoffed at standing desks in the early days, but now research shows that standing and sitting throughout the day is much better for employee health and morale and may even positively affect productivity.
Examine the pros and cons of every idea and make sure your management team is doing the same so that you won't miss any opportunities to build ergonomics into your workplace.
Build an Objective Report
When your company is working hard to build an ergonomic workplace, it can be very frustrating to have to acknowledge where there are failures. However, sticking with the plan that isn't working may do a lot more harm.
Therefore, it's wise to build in as many objective reports as possible about your workplace ergonomics. Know how many MSD symptoms are occurring as ergonomic practices are put into place as opposed to before ergonomic systems were in place.
Be sure to account for variables that could skew the data. For instance, if you incentivize early reporting and then see a rise in MSD reported, it may be because of increased reporting and not because of increased incidence.
Office Ergonomics Basics
Many of us work in the office every day and experience office work-related problems like a sore lower back, injuries to the wrist, carpal tunnel syndrome, and problems with blood clots and sore legs. After all, we spend as many as 1700 hours a year in front of our computers.
However, office work does not have to be a sentence for health problems. By properly maintaining your office ergonomics, you can enjoy a comfortable and pain-free workday, every day.
A Good Chair
It's recommended that you spend slightly more time sitting than standing every day, so you need a great office chair. The right chair should be fully adjustable so that you can position the arm height and angle precisely.
The back of the chair should curve to support your spine in a natural way. You should be able to gently rest your arms with your shoulders relaxed when you are typing.
A Standing Desk and Pad
Standing desks are sweeping the nation for good reason. It is much better for people to switch between sitting and standing throughout the day, so an adjustable standing desk is the perfect solution.
A quality anti-fatigue mat is important so that you do not experience foot, leg, or lower back pain from standing on hard surfaces. Your standing desk should be able to go high enough that you can relax your shoulders and maintain an appropriate distance from the monitor. It should be sturdy enough that you can put everything that you need to frequently access on the rising platform.
Whether you're standing or sitting, you want to extend and reach as little as possible. Your mouse and keyboard should go on the same surface and you should not have to extend your arm to use the mouse. Anything else that you frequently use throughout the day, such as a printer or water glass, should also be within easy reach.
Try to Use the Keyboard Over the Mouse
Most computer tasks require a balance of keyboard and mouse use, but the less that you can switch between them the better. Learn keyboard shortcuts to avoid having to point to commands as much as possible.
Arrange windows so that you do not have to click between them when you are consulting two documents. It can be helpful to use more than one monitor if you find that you often have to switch between windows using the mouse. There are also shorthand commands using the keyboard to switch between tabs and windows in most major browsers.
Headset or Speakerphone
If you've ever had to have an extended conversation at work and then found your neck sore after keeping the phone pinned between your ear and shoulder, you know how important it can be to have hands-free phone communication. If you are in a home office, a speakerphone is likely to be sufficient, but if there are other people around or you need a quieter environment, consider a headset. Make sure you keep the headset near at hand so you can grab it easily when you need to answer the phone.
Lighting is an often-overlooked area of workplace ergonomics, but incorrect lighting can easily lead to head and neck aches in the same way as poor posture can. Lighting should be dim enough that it does not glare on screens, but you should not have to squint to read. Employees with particular lighting needs, such as those who need more lighting, can adjust their individual workstations to provide more light.
Easy to See Presentation Areas
Lots of offices today have more open work areas, which may make it easier for employees to collaborate together and for supervisors to manage. It is easy for managers to take advantage of these open spaces to create an impromptu meetings without having to call people into a meeting area.
However, it is important to consider ergonomics when employees are viewing presentation areas, especially if there are presentations often. Whatever is being used to explain information to employees, whether it's a screen, a whiteboard, or something else, should be very easy for everyone in the room to see.
The equipment should be easy for people who are both left and right-handed to use, so that there will not be an ergonomic strain on the presenter or on those watching the presentation.
Be Conscious of Your Posture
Your monitor should be about an arm's length away and the top of the screen should sit just below your eye level or even with your eye level. You should not have to turn your head at all from the keyboard to see the monitor.
Make sure that you are maintaining this posture and distance throughout your workday. We have a tendency to lean in and hunch over the screen whether we are sitting or standing. Make sure that you are zooming in instead of leaning in when something on the screen is difficult to see.
Have as Much Variety in Your Day as Possible
One of the major contributors to MSD is repetitive motion. It's not so much what you do, but how often you do it.
To some degree, there is a limit on how much workers can do to reduce repetitive motion throughout their day, but there are times when variety can be introduced. If you have a number of different jobs to do throughout the week, try to break them up so that you don't spend too long doing any one thing.
Stress is one of the major contributors to the tenseness that makes MSD develop and worsen. We all experience a degree of stress in our workday, but actively doing what you can to reduce stress may make a big difference in how comfortable you are and how much pain you feel.
Use a stress ball, practice breathing exercises, try soothing music, and take other steps to relax mentally and physically throughout your workday.
Read More: Does Insurance Cover a Standing Desk?
Lower Back Pain and Workplace Ergonomics
We've all experienced sore lower back for some reason or another, but persistent lower back pain may be more problematic than you realize. Lower back pain was the highest-ranked disability globally, causing more disabilities than anything else.
Lower back pain issues increase with age, so the longer you spend in a workplace, the more likely you are to experience serious back pain. Back pain is not an inevitable consequence of growing older in the workplace. Here are some things that you can do to reduce back pain using workplace ergonomics:
- Don't use your cell phone for extensive typing. Many of us are becoming more and more reliant on our phones at home and at work. However, the tendency to hunch your back and strain your neck when you are typing on a cell phone can be a disaster for your lower back. Therefore, if you have anything more than a few words to write, use your computer instead.
- Never sit for long periods. Only sit for approximately an hour or two before alternating to standing. Simply taking a walk in between periods of sitting isn't enough. Your legs need time to support your weight and change the pressure on your lower back.
- Back stretches. Short breaks throughout the workday and switching from sitting to standing are all very helpful for an ergonomic workplace and reducing back pain. However, to reduce back pain specifically, it's a good idea to perform back stretches frequently throughout the day. To perform this stretch, hug your body tightly, holding onto your shoulder blades. Breathe in and out as you relieve the tension between your shoulder blades.
- Finger Stretch. You may not think your fingers and arms have much to do with your lower back, but in fact, performing a simple finger point in which you stretch out each hand and then pull the fingers back towards you with the other hand can improve posture and get the blood flowing down through your lower back as well.
Read More: Are Standing Desks Bad for Your Knees?
Exercises for the Lower Back
You can perform simple exercises at home that will build up your core strength and help support your lower back. While you may not be able to get your employer to pay for these exercises, they can make a big difference in your work life.
If you are a forward-thinking business owner, it may not be a bad idea to consider encouraging employees to perform these activities or even providing space in the workday for them, especially if lower back pain has been a problem for your workforce. Kneeling chairs have also been shown to help reduce stress and pressure on the lower back and are a great alternative to the standard, traditional style of desk chair.
Read More >> Best Kneeling Chairs for Back Pain (2021 Review)
Both some Pilates exercises and a specialized technique known as the McKenzie method have been suggested as superb ways to reduce lower back pain.
The McKenzie method is a much more specialized and scientific way that involves a clinician assessing and then providing a treatment. Pilates exercises involve simple exercises that can be done anywhere by pretty much anyone.
For instance, there is a simple plank exercise in which you lie on your stomach and raise your legs, arms, and head of of the ground. There is also an exercise in which you lie flat and raise your head and chest off the ground. Even some simple Pilates postures like these are likely to do a lot to increase your core muscles and reduce back pain.
Get a Balance Ball
You may look a little bit funny working on your computer while sitting on an exercise ball, but it may have meaningful benefits. Studies have found that subjects reported less musculoskeletal pain even after only using the balance ball for a brief period.
Ongoing research still needs to be conducted, but there is an argument to be made that this might be a very cheap and effective way to increase your ergonomics and reduce your lower back pain.
Workplace ergonomics may seem like a soft science to many companies, and too many employees don't take it into account throughout their everyday work. However, workplace ergonomics are important for the happiness, health, and productivity of employees.
Workplaces with poor ergonomics are more likely to see employees unable to perform all tasks needed for work or missing work entirely because of injuries sustained due to poor ergonomics. Whether you are an employee, a manager, or a business owner, great workplace ergonomics are well-worth building into every workday.