Understanding Ergonomics in the Workplace

Last Updated Jun 8, 2007 7:45 PM EDT

Ergonomics is the adaptation of equipment, procedures, and surroundings to best fit the people who use them. The fundamental purpose of ergonomics is to create a safe, comfortable, and stress-free workplace environment by customizing the right products and systems to each individual workstation. Ergonomics is normally associated with computer use, but its principles can apply equally to all forms of work.

This article focuses on ergonomics as it applies to the office environment. It will also suggest how you might create and maintain your workplace in a way that increases your employees' comfort and reduces their stress.

What You Need to KnowWhat are the benefits of ergonomics?

Applied ergonomics can raise production and efficiency levels, quality of service, and staff retention. It can also reduce insurance premiums because of the reduction of workplace related accidents and injuries. Employees also benefit. Their motivation and job satisfaction increase. They experience less pain and suffer fewer injuries. Overall, absenteeism is reduced and there is a greater sense of well being in the workplace.

Are there implications if ergonomics isn't taken seriously?

If ergonomics is ignored, there may be a number of workplace consequences. Workers may sustain physical injuries from prolonged and repetitive activity if the tasks involve repetitive movement or applying excessive force. Taking breaks is essential too, as is good posture. For office workers, the most common complaints are:

  • Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI)
  • Work Related Upper Limb Disorder (WRULD)
  • Cumulative Trauma Disorder (CTD)
  • Employees in the maintenance and construction industries who regularly use vibrating hand tools may be prone to may suffer hand-arm vibration syndrome (HAVS), the most common result of which is "white finger."
  • Employees working with video monitors and computers, or workers doing exacting assembly tasks, are prone to blurred vision or unusual eye irritability.

Many organizations are viewing attention to ergonomics as part of their overall approach to workplace safety.

What to DoIncrease Ergonomic Awareness

Conduct a diagnostic test of all workstations to identify any potential risk factors that may cause physical discomfort or stress. It is useful to involve all employees in this process since they are the experts on their own workstation related discomfort and stress. Determine which tasks involve prolonged or repetitive activity that may lead to physical discomfort, and whether or not job requirements cause job stress. Once associated sources of discomfort and stress are identified, determine which equipment or furniture could improve the person-workstation fit.

Make necessary changes on the basis of an appropriate diagnostic test of each workstation. Some solutions may involve an alteration of processes or procedures. In that case train employees to effectively use the new methods. If equipment or furniture is changed, be sure employees know how to properly adjust, use, and maintain the new items.

Address Ergonomic Problems in the Workplace

One common area for office workers is getting the position and height of chairs and desks correct so that they can work ergonomically. Make sure that chairs fit the individual user, support the back appropriately, and are comfortable. Backrest and armrests can also help reduce back strain.

Computers and monitors are also frequently not ergonomically situated. In addition, glare from, or reflections on, monitor screens may lead to eyestrain. To cut down on reflections, place desks perpendicular, rather than parallel, to windows in order to help minimize reflections. Antiglare filters or screens can also help reduce eyestrain. Some office lighting, such as unshielded fluorescent strip lighting, is not suitable for use with monitors. Indirect lighting is best. Fixtures that project light upwards or lights with glare-free diffusers are best.

Office temperature should also be set so people do not notice whether it is too hot or too cold. That temperature is usually between 68 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Since electrical equipment dries the air which causes static buildup on computer screens that attracts dust.

Select Ergonomic Equipment

Once risks have been identified, the re-design of the workstation should account for individual differences. The result should ensure that the individual-workstation fit is appropriate. Purchasing adjustable office equipment will enable you to accommodate most people and keep your costs reasonable.

Employees should learn how to perform a workstation ergonomic audit and make any necessary adjustments to their furniture.

The following product check-list can help you assess your furniture purchase.

  • Is the item convenient and easy to use?
  • Is the item easy for the user to adjust, and does it come with clear instructions?
  • Are the materials of the product durable and of good quality?
  • Does it offer good fit and comfort?
  • Does the item's fit and comfort last for a prolonged period of time?
  • Does a reputable manufacturer make the item?

A number of manufacturers and distributors sell ergonomic office equipment. Using ergonomic office equipment is an easy way for an organization to avoid injury in the first place, avoid an injury recurring, and be useful for workers with disabilities. An ergonomic mouse to reduce wrist and lower arm muscle strain, a keyboard with palm rests to reduce RSI, and antiglare computer screens to reduce eyestrain, are all available now.

Be Aware Of Best Practice

Ergonomic furniture and equipment in the workplace cannot compensate for bad practice. Employees need to be mindful of measures they can take to reduce the risks of fatigue, stress, and work-related injuries in the workplace. This can easily be achieved by holding ergonomic awareness training sessions or periodically distributing leaflets with information on best practice.

Employees should also be encouraged to improve their posture to reduce their risk of back and wrist injuries. Encourage employees to take frequent short breaks rather than a few long breaks. When combined with stretching and breathing exercises to loosen up the muscles and reduce tension, they will keep themselves at peak readiness to do their jobs well, and they'll reduce the risk of injury and stress. Even simple processes can make a difference, too. For example, keeping knees bent and the back straight while lifting heavy loads, reduces the chance of injury. Avoid extremes in reaching, twisting, or lifting, and keep items you use frequently within easy reach.

Adjust the backrest and armrests of chairs so users sit in an upright position without slouching. The backrest should follow the natural "s" curve of the spine. The height of the chair should be adjusted so that wrists, hands, and forearms are horizontal with the desk. Feet should be placed flat on the floor or on a footrest. Keep the head up and shoulders relaxed. Legs and feet should fit comfortably under the desk.

The computer monitor should be at a comfortable distance from the eyes. Make sure there is space on the desk to rest hands and wrists, so that wrist movement is kept to a minimum. Adjust the brightness and color contrast of the computer screen and make sure that it is reflection-free and clean. Avoid long periods of repetitive activity; for example, alternate computer-based work with other tasks.

Be Aware Of Relevant Legislation

Although applying ergonomic practices to the workplace is a matter of common sense, it is the business's responsibility to be aware of health and safety legislation in order to create and maintain a safe workplace environment. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sets the standards, which are outlined in the Occupational and Safety and Health Act of 1970 and various subsequent amendments. Regulations change frequently. Be sure your equipment and furniture suppliers are all in compliance with the latest regulations and their instructions and training are in accordance with best practices. International standards are also being updated regularly.

What to AvoidYou Do Too Little Too Late

Ergonomics should be used in the workplace to help prevent problems. Ergonomic awareness should be introduced as soon as possible—before a problem becomes apparent. An ergonomics briefing should take place when each employee is hired and at each annual performance evaluation.

You Don't Train Staff

Running staff training programs increases awareness and gains commitment to ergonomic practices. The reasons for being ergonomically sensible should be highlighted. Supervisors should be active in letting employees know when their workstations appear out of alignment and encourage them to make adjustments as needed.

You Don't Choose the Right Equipment

Make sure that all replacement equipment and upgrades are ergonomically appropriate. Carry out a diagnostic test of the workplace before making any equipment purchasing decision.

Where to Learn MoreBook:

Inkeles, Gordon and Schencke, Iris, Ergonomic Living: How to Create A User-Friendly Home and Office. Fireside Books, 2006.

Web Sites:

Occupational Safety and Health Administration, ergonomics factsheet: www.osha.gov/SLTC/ergonomics/four-pronged_factsheet.html

NIOSH Health Hazard Evaluations: www.osha.gov/SLTC/ergonomics/contributing_conditions.html