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Managing Health: Faster, Better, More Efficient Applies to Office Ergonomics, Too

Sept. 10, 2012
An office ergonomics improvement process is the primary mechanism for organizations with large office worker populations to reach their zero injury/incident goals. Despite the critical nature of this process, many organizations seem to be stuck in the 1990s when it comes to managing and implementing it.

Some would argue that the ’90s had a lot of great “advancements” – the Internet, mobile phone technology, grunge music (maybe). But during that time, the sore backs and wrists of office workers became a common concern and, by the end of the decade, equipment manufacturers had revamped their offerings and business managers were becoming enlightened to the advantages of investing in equipment that best fit their workers.

As ergonomics engineers, we have had the opportunity to be a part of the office ergonomics agenda for hundreds of companies. Working with so many smart organizations has helped us understand the importance of achieving balance among three areas: education, evaluation and equipment. Achieving this balance produces an effective ergonomics program that has a real impact. But the key is achieving seamless integration among the three to quickly advance toward your goals. Simply put, in today’s world, you must get better and faster, and you must do it with increasing efficiency.

The nice thing about ergonomic solutions for the office is that they can be relatively simple. In most offices, people are performing similar tasks with similar equipment. So naturally, the problems and their solutions tend to be repeated. So why do so many office ergonomics programs struggle for years before making a measurable impact? In many cases, they lack a systematic and efficient process to educate people and provide a link between their workplace issues and the known solutions.

Education Only Vs. Equipment Only

There must be a balance between providing office workers with the right equipment to do their jobs and engaging them in ergonomics through education.

All too often, we see office ergonomics programs that focus on worker education, with no provisions for improving workstation concerns. It is easy to see why these programs fail; educating an employee in proper work posture accomplishes little if his or her workstation does not provide the flexibility to achieve that posture. How much can employees do to prevent injury or discomfort and work more efficiently while using the same inadequate equipment? The education-only approach may provide employees with a better understanding of the factors contributing to injuries, but if they don’t have the tools to prevent ergonomic problems, reports of discomfort or problems will rise and the potential for injury statistics to follow will increase.

The flip side to the education-only ergonomics program is the equipment-only approach. Investing in equipment is a noble beginning, but just having the latest and greatest tools will not solve your problems. For instance, a keyboard support that offers six different adjustments may encourage users to set their keyboards in a variety of incorrect positions. The equipment-only approach is one of the biggest areas of uncontrolled spending in office ergonomics. Not every employee needs a keyboard support, an anti-glare screen, a document holder and a telephone headset. And how many operators have not yet discovered the height-adjustment lever on their $800 chair? Just imagine the cost of implementing these changes at every workstation in your company! New equipment may provide a vehicle for solving ergonomic problems, but providing education is the road map.

Job Evaluations

Effective office ergonomics processes must achieve a balance between identifying the most pressing concerns and fixing them. Most ergonomics programs under-emphasize the need to prioritize job improvement efforts. Without a quantitative measure of how important problems are, efforts and money tend to be spent on individuals who complain the most or have the most influence. As a result, you’ll miss the bigger picture of your true high-priority concerns. We sometimes refer to these folks as the silent sufferers – people who deal with discomfort because they don’t want to be a bother.

Some ergonomics programs get stuck in over-analysis or inefficient analysis and, unfortunately, the process becomes more about the activity (completing assessments) than the outcome (helping people work comfortably with minimal risk of injury).

The big challenge in striking the right balance between analysis and solutions is the time it takes to understand the level of concern at each workstation. An evaluation tool that requires an ergonomics expert to spend 40 minutes observing each workstation and interviewing the person who works there is not going to support a 1,000-person office; that’s more than 650 hours of analysis, which would require 16 people working full-time in a given week.

Effective office ergonomics processes must achieve a balance between identifying the most pressing concerns and fixing them.

To be effective, we must be efficient. A quick, online self-assessment tool that asks the right questions and identifies the specific level of concern at each workstation will help you prioritize your face-to-face evaluation time and help you understand the overall areas of concern across departments so you can budget and plan equipment and accessory purchases.

More importantly, by including your work force in the assessment process, you gain insight into the underlying equipment issues at each workstation and can create a prioritized list of people who require a personal visit for further evaluation. Even better, when you go see them, they already have been engaged in the process, which helps you implement changes more smoothly. In my experience, these advantages make your face-to-face assessments more efficient. Your workload goes from 1,000 face-to-face assessments to less than 100, and these can be completed in about a week.

The Norm

Today, online ergonomics programs are becoming the norm. Not only do they improve the efficiency of the ergonomics engineer tasked with assessing hundreds, if not thousands, of workstations, they provide the user with the foundation to understand the importance of establishing good ergonomics. The typical office employee probably does not adjust his or her workspace according to anthropometrics (an individual’s size, weight and height). Instead, he or she sits in the chair that was provided, no matter the height and seat pan width, and uses the existing monitor and telephone in the same locations where the previous occupant placed them. Rarely does the employee feel the need to adjust the tools to fit his or her own body; it probably doesn’t even warrant a thought.

Equipment that is not properly aligned to the user contributes to the development of musculoskeletal disorders. Twisting to answer the phone or retrieve materials can cause overexertion, using a raised keyboard could cause carpal tunnel syndrome to develop and viewing a monitor that is too far away may cause eyestrain. A simple change in equipment placement might be all that’s needed to improve the overall well-being of the user. Who knew?

With proper training, employees are empowered to identify their own risk factors and issues. Online training can be completed in less than 30 minutes and, if done well, will teach users how to fit their workstations to their bodies and needs. Now, when they are ready to take their self-assessment, they are set up as best possible, given the equipment and accessories they currently have. From our experience, if the training focuses on simple set-up rules, then 70 percent of people will be able to solve their own issues.

The self-assessment needs to build on the training and should be administered immediately afterwards. A short survey, between 25 and 30 questions, is sufficient to gather the appropriate information. However, results linking concerns to known solutions must be made available immediately, enabling employees to solve many of their own problems through workstation adjustment, workflow modification or workstation accessory acquisition. The changes they select and the action plans they build are their idea, which eliminates any resistance to change.
You will never eliminate the face-to-face assessment. If you are trying to eliminate it, don’t. There will be people who have special circumstances or pre-existing conditions that require professional advice. The key is to provide a system that helps people solve their own problems, while determining who among your employee pool is of higher concern, allowing you to see them clearly and help them faster.

It’s a fact that business simply will not tolerate the inefficiency of the way we did things in the ‘90s or the “noughts.” So my question this month is, “How are you going to make your ergonomics process faster – better – more efficient?”

James Mallon, CPE, is a vice president with Humantech, which delivers practical solutions that impact safety, quality and productivity. Humantech believes people make productivity happen. For additional information, visit or call 734-663-6707. Mallon can be contacted directly at [email protected].

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