Education Is Key to an Ergonomically Sound Workplace

Emphasizing ergonomic workspaces can lead to a healthier workforce, lower costs and a stronger business overall.

January 25, 2013

With back pain and wrist strains an everyday occurrence in most offices, experts are touting ergonomic education as a way to cure what ails the aching employee.

James Mallon, executive vice president of Humantech Inc., an ergonomics improvement company based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, said developing a well-designed, ergonomically friendly office space is an important aspect of any business.

Having a comfortable office can lessen workers discomfort and pain, he said, adding: "If we're comfortable, we'll be there more."

Humantech recently released an e-book that details how to improve the ergonomic design of the workplace. According to the company, the e-book "outlines the ergonomic principles that will help you establish a productive, comfortable and safe place to work, resulting in fewer injuries and illnesses."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines ergonomics as the scientific study of people at work. "The goal of ergonomics is to reduce stress and eliminate injuries and disorders associated with the overuse of muscles, bad posture and repeated tasks. This is accomplished by designing tasks, work spaces, controls, displays, tools, lighting and equipment to fit the employee's physical capabilities and limitations," according to the CDC.

The biggest risks associated with having a poorly designed office in terms of ergonomics are musculoskeletal injuries, or soft-tissue injuries, according to Humantech's e-book.

The most frequent types of injuries suffered by office workers are lower-back pain, neck and shoulder pain, and carpal tunnel syndrome. Although carpal tunnel is the most well known office injury, it is not as common as lower-back pain, and neck and shoulder pain, Mallon says. Carpal tunnel syndrome, however, can cost up to $30,000 per employee per corrective procedure, according to the e-book.

In 2010, musculoskeletal injuries made up about 30 percent of all workplace injuries or illnesses that required time away from work, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Additionally, the average number of days missed because of a musculoskeletal injury for the entire private sector population was 11 days per incident, according to the study.

Having the proper education and access to ergonomic office accessories are the two most important ways in which an employer can try to eliminate office-related injuries, thereby managing absenteeism and avoiding the associated costs, Mallon said. Sound ergonomics can also make a business more competitive when trying to acquire top talent, he added.

Employers should learn how to provide a workstation for employees that allows them to maintain a neutral position while at their desks, Mallon said. In neutral positions, joints can absorb more stress, and blood flow is not constricted. He said it's important for employees who perform high-repetition tasks like typing to take short five-minute breaks every hour.

Another way people can reduce their risk of ergonomic injuries is by taking time each morning to properly set up their workstation. Employees should make sure their monitors are positioned correctly, that their keyboards are about an arm's length away, and that they're seated correctly with their feet flat on the floor, the e-book says.

Mallon emphasized the most important way for employers to create an ergonomic workplace is by educating themselves and their employees about the subject. "If people understand bad health choices, maybe they'll be more inclined to avoid making those choices," he said.

Max Mihelich is Workforce's editorial intern. Comment below or email