Ergonomics road trip

Health, Wealth and the Office Ergonomics Road Trip

It occurred to me that there are parallels between navigating a cross-country road trip and the journey that office ergonomics has travelled as a discipline.

In my house, summertime means one thing: family road trips. You know the drill; packing the truck with way too much stuff and navigating out of the city, toward the mountains or water.

As we set out for our family trip to the beach last weekend, I was bouncing around ideas for this piece, specifically centered on office ergonomics. It occurred to me that there are parallels between navigating a cross-country road trip and the journey that office ergonomics has traveled as a discipline.

The Road Trip

Fifteen or 20 years ago, office ergonomics required a lot of attention and navigation, much like trying to get out of the city at the beginning of a road trip. There was traffic congestion and lots of turns (and honking) as the field exploded. We had to consider the impact of laptops, alternative keyboards, exercise ball chairs, trackball mice, wrist rests – there was a lot to sift through in terms of choices. I spoke to a lot of EHS managers in those early days about how to deal with all of this, what equipment to provide and how to set it up. Perhaps the EHS manager even had an “ergo lab” where people could go to take new equipment for a test drive.

Five to 10 years later, office ergonomics got relatively quiet, as if we escaped the concrete jungle and were cruising peacefully on I-80, heading west across the Great Plains. During this time, there were few revolutionary trends in new equipment design and companies perhaps were distracted by other external factors that resulted in some complacency with their ergonomics programs. Some slipped back into reactive mode when it came to office ergonomics, and they got away with it.

Looking ahead on our road trip, I see the end of the flat lands and the Rocky Mountains are in sight. This new terrain requires the driver’s attention to navigate the vehicle safely through unfamiliar twists and turns. The curvy road illustrates the complexity of today’s office and its equipment and their potential policy implications. Variables such as changing employee and customer needs, varying office locations (in the home, at a customer site, in a café or on an airplane 36,000 feet in the air) and emerging technologies (tablets, smartphones, sit-stand workstations) may require some reevaluation and realignment.

It occurred to me that when I say, “I’m going to work,” the word “work” is a verb, not a noun, because I could be anywhere. With all the changes and complexities to consider, managing the modern office workplace is indeed a challenge, but one that can be overcome. At the center of the challenge is the need for organizations to maintain a stimulating and healthy environment for their employees. As the physical office and work tasks continue to evolve, we also must continue to evaluate the office environment and adjust it accordingly to ensure employees remain willing and able to work every day.

Despite all these new equipment and workplace considerations, office ergonomics still is relatively straightforward. However, we have seen the Rocky Mountains in front of us, and realize the need for companies to recalibrate how to best address office ergonomics as an organization.

To plan our best route through the mountains, let’s first examine how office ergonomics affects both health and wealth to remind ourselves why ergonomics matters – for both the individual and the organization.

Health and Wealth

Let’s go back to the beginning and define the relationship between office ergonomics and health. In 1997, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) published the most comprehensive compilation of the epidemiological studies on the correlation of exposure to physical factors in the workplace and musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). NIOSH concluded that there is a large body of credible epidemiological research that shows a consistent relationship between certain physical risk factors in the workplace and MSDs. These physical risk factors include repetitive motion, excessive force and awkward postures (including sustained postures, prolonged sitting, and standing). Although we typically don’t associate excessive force with office tasks, the postural biomechanics and frequency of certain tasks can increase the risk of developing an MSD.

From a more qualitative perspective, Humantech recently surveyed over 24,000 users to better understand the fit between people and their office furniture and equipment. Discomfort levels in the office, self-reported concerns and equipment satisfaction and needs were some of the questions asked. We found that discomfort in the workplace is more prevalent than we thought. Almost half (46 percent) of people surveyed experience discomfort in at least one body region as a result of their work on a computer (or piece of mobile technology). Body regions with the highest discomfort were the eyes (18 percent), neck/upper back (18 percent), lower back (18 percent), right shoulder (14 percent) and the right wrist (13 percent).

What does this mean? Even if you are not seeing a significant number of injuries among your computer users, the risk factors still result in symptoms that affect their contribution to the health of the company.Speaking of which: Isn’t wealth just another way of describing the “health” of an organization? To be able to describe the value of office ergonomics to other groups within your organization, consider the following:

• The cost implications of MSDs versus the cost to implement solutions.

According to OSHA’s Safety Pays program, companies can spend up to $63,000 (direct and indirect costs) to treat one carpal tunnel injury. Don’t you think it is more beneficial to use those resources to solve the ergonomics issue rather than to treat the employee?

• Stock performance of companies with strong health and safety cultures. A study titled, “Tracking the Market Performance of Companies That Integrate a Culture of Health and Safety” by Fabius et al (2016), concluded that employers that significantly invest in health and safety programming can outperform other companies in the marketplace by a significant margin. If people perform well, your company will perform well. If people perform poorly, long-term company success is difficult to achieve.

• Return on investment (ROI). A recommended equation for ROI is: (benefits – costs)/costs. Costs may include money spent on office ergonomics equipment or time spent conducting assessments. Some of the benefits are higher productivity, better employee engagement and retention and lower injury/illness costs. A safer workplace not only reduces injuries and costs, but also contributes to the success of the organization by attracting and retaining the best employees. In today’s competitive landscape, we almost always need to show payback or return on investment for equipment, programs and projects. For many companies, this includes office ergonomics.

The Road Ahead

Now that we know why we should pay closer attention to our office ergonomics process, what should you do to prepare for the new challenges of the computer user in the modern office?  

Make sure you have a current inventory of ergonomics challenges. Formally recognize that work is performed everywhere and at all hours. Thanks to the connectivity and portability of today’s technology, core tasks might be done at home, in a shared workspace (“hoteling”), at a client’s location, in a hotel or on a plane. Providing training on how to properly set up a home office or an “office on the go” is imperative. Consider remote assistance or e-learning modules to help you do that.

Revisit your “approved” equipment list. If it hasn’t been updated in a few years, there may be new elements to include. Of course, every equipment list includes the standard input device (keyboard and mouse) and a viewing screen, but what about peripheral equipment? You may find it’s time to add monitor arms or sit-stand workstations to your list.

Develop a current written policy and strategy. Again, if you’ve been on “cruise control” the last few years, your policy might be out of date. If so, explain how the remote workforce will be supported. Generate a list of recommended or provided equipment, and include a section in your policy and procedures manual that states the standard for the home office. For example, “The home office must be free from ergonomics and safety hazards.” How that’s accomplished is left to the company’s (or manager’s) discretion.

Give It Some Gas

As with every road trip, revisiting your office ergonomics process is going to have unexpected detours, construction slow-downs, flat tires, etc. But, with proper planning and attention to the twists and turns, you will arrive at your destination safely.

Remember, good fortune favors the prepared. So, don’t let the long, straight road we have been cruising on for the last few years lull you into complacency and force your office ergonomics process off the road. Embrace the Rocky Mountains that lie in front of us. Drive safely.

Kent Hatcher, director of consulting and ergonomics engineer for Humantech, leads a team of ergonomists to develop, manage and sustain global ergonomics programs using software solutions for Fortune 1000 clients across a broad spectrum of industries, including food and beverage, machinery, health care and consumer goods.

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