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Are Your Employees Working Ergosmart

December 1, 1996
Related Topics: Ergonomics and Facilities, Featured Article
In spite of increased corporate ergonomic initiatives, injury stories still abound. For example, a 6-foot-5-inch product manager with back pain paid $1000 for an ergonomically suitable chair—after his company refused his request. A senior editor of a publishing company suffered from neckpain and complained because her office manager wouldn’t buy headsets for the five editors. Instead, the manager suggested they share one headset.

Very often, employers ignore how the human body simply isn’t designed to accommodate today’s technology. Because one can’t redesign the human body, employers should, therefore, ensure that the office design accommodates employees and clients. This area of expertise is called ergonomics. It raises several questions: Who is actually responsible for the analysis of risk factors, productivity and cost? How do companies reduce the unrealistic demands on workers’ bodies? How do managers recognize problems and overcome resistance to ergonomic investments, especially by financial departments?

Human resources and personnel managers should be the key players in addressing these issues. HR in large corporations can obtain advice from in-house experts. One can rely on them for information about ergonomics, facilities design, engineering, safety and health. In mid-sized and smaller companies, however, HR people must utilize the appropriate experts, resources and their own good management savvy to address the problems. Otherwise, your company will end up paying more later—in health costs and lowered productivity.

Respond to the wake-up call.
According to Bureau of Labor Statistics reports in 1993 and 1995, repeated traumas are growing, as are workers’ compensation costs. In response, the Office Ergonomics Research Committee (OERC) issued a report earlier this year called "Musculoskeletal Disorders in the U.S. Office Workforce." The OERC was formed in 1991 by leading communications, computer, furniture, design and technology companies in the United States that were concerned by reports of the increasing number of upper extremity musculoskeletal disorders among office workers. It advocates that the following elements be assessed: work habits, task design, equipment and workstation ergonomics, individual personal risk factors, plus individual and organizational psychosocial factors. The committee found that office ergonomics education can help address on-the-job musculoskeletal discomforts before they become more serious problems.

Among the most frequently reported problems are those suffered by computer users. They report discomfort and pain in the neck, shoulders, wrists, backs; sore muscles; headaches; eyestrain; swollen feet; poor posture; tension; and fatigue.

Human resources can learn to assess and help correct discomfort, stress or strain among those who work at computers. When arranging the workstation to fit the employee’s work mode, consider these factors:

  • The keyboard and monitor should be directly in front of the person to avoid twisting the body.
  • The height of the table or chair should allow wrists to be positioned at the same level as the elbow.
  • The monitor and typing material should be at or just below eye level.
  • The monitor should be a distance 18 inches to 30 inches from the eyes. Prescription glasses must be for this distance.
  • The keyboard should be at a level where wrists are straight, in a neutral position, rather than bent forward or flexed for long periods of time.
  • The wrists should be able to rest lightly on a pad for support.
  • The head and neck should be upright, not tilting forward or to the side.
  • The chair should provide lower- and middle-back support.
  • The feet should be flat on the floor, or on a footrest, so the knees are parallel at a 90-degree to 110-degree angle. There should be 3 inches to 6 inches of leg room between one’s lap and keyboard.

Everyone’s needs are different. Some employees may need to stand and work at their computers. Fortunately, there are companies that manufacture height-adjustable work tables that can let employees do just that.

Invest now or pay later.
According to Linda Friedman, president of the LRF Design Group, "A company can get the biggest bang for its buck by investing in a good ergonomics chair." Look for adjustability. Most chairs offer at least three and as many as six adjustments, including swivel, seat height, seat tilt, back-tilt tension, backrest height and backrest depth. The more adjustable the chair, the easier it is to change positions and relieve muscle stress and back pain. (Back pain is the second most common cause of lost work time, now estimated at 90 million workdays a year.) In dollar terms, good means paying between $750 and $1,000 per chair.

Also try to reduce eyestrain. Simple adjustments, such as closing the blinds from outside windows, turning off overhead lights and using task lamps can reduce glare, eliminating eyestrain and headaches. Teach eye exercises to reduce fatigue. Prescription glasses should be adjusted for proper distance.

Another tip is to promote exercise. Exercise is absolutely essential to remain healthy while working on computers. What supervisors may not realize is that aerobic exercise for 20 minutes to 30 minutes per day is vital. It promotes circulation—especially to distal areas—and reduces stress.

And finally, encourage healthy lifestyle habits, such as good nutrition and getting a good night’s sleep.

Learn from other positive role models.
One company implemented an ergonomics program that really helped employees work better at their computers. St. Louis-based General American Life Insurance set up its ergonomics program a few years ago. Vickie Perry, facility design coordinator and former ergonomics coordinator says, "The company found the best way to avoid injuries is to educate employees." Every area of management identified employees to be trained as ergonomics specialists. These 40 specialists received a one-day training program to educate them about ergonomics, repetitive motion injuries (RMIs), ways to reduce RMIs and adjusting the furniture. The specialists performed ergonomic assessments on every employee, helped position them correctly and communicated why it was important to do so. The company purchased new chairs and found a company to retrofit their Steelcase desks by installing articulated keyboard shelves, which was much cheaper than buying new desks.

As General America Life Insurance found, HR managers can implement ergonomics training programs more easily today than in the past. Resources, including the Internet, exist. CTD News (800/554-4283) is an excellent source for finding consultants and information. Human resources staff also can attend ergonomics conferences, such as the National Ergonomics Exposition & Conference (800/969-6636), and Managing Ergonomics in the 1990s (703/683-6334).

Finally, be a role model. Don’t sit hunched over your computer with your monitor placed at a 90-degree angle to your body. Send the message that you’re working ergosmart and you’re willing to help everyone else work ergosmart, too.

Personnel Journal, December 1996, Vol. 75, No. 12, pp. 91-92.

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