There was a time when developing, deploying and sustaining effective office ergonomics processes were ridiculously challenging. For many organizations, the work involved represented a drain on an organization's resources, and for many EHS professionals, a potential career pothole.
Any EHS professional who was lucky enough to participate in the activities required to implement such a process can attest to the frustration over never-ending employee requests for workstation assessments, repeated equipment modifications or corrections, a backlog of employee complaints and even injuries.
Luckily, those days are in the past; positive changes in furniture design, the development of more effective office layouts and, most importantly, the availability of easy-to-use online ergonomics training and self-assessment modules for the worker make setting up a comfortable and safe workspace much easier today. In truth, with the technological advancements, there are few legitimate reasons why a company cannot successfully create proper ergonomic conditions in the workplace.
Today's office is a complex and dynamic collection of elements. It constantly is evolving in response to emerging technology (tablets, hybrids, Google glasses, etc.) and ever-changing employee needs. However, with all the changes and technological complexities to consider, it is more important than ever to use proven and efficient methods to manage your modern office ergonomics process.
So take note of the following practical tips offered to avoid some of the most common reasons for office ergonomics failure.
Excuse No. 1: We don't need to do anything because musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) aren't really hurting our people or our company's bottom line.
The research is in and it clearly states that doing nothing is not enough. No matter what you call them – cumulative trauma disorders, repetitive motion injuries or musculoskeletal disorders – soft tissue injuries continue to be a major cause of risk and loss in today's office environment. In recent benchmarking studies, employers indicated that MSDs account for 24 percent to 75 percent of all of their recordable injuries. It generally is accepted that the three primary MSD risk factors that exist in the office are awkward postures, high forces and long duration and/or high frequencies. Although the limit for each varies by joint structure (shoulder, wrist, back, etc.), increasing the combination of these risk factors is tied to increased incidence of developing an MSD.
Nearly 50 percent of all office occupants will experience work-related MSD pain during their careers and as many as 16 percent of office staff members report their pain to be severe. Beyond pain, data on MSD injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome indicates that direct costs can run into the tens of thousands of dollars for treatment, and an average of up to two dozen lost workdays per occurrence. When combined with indirect costs associated with increased absenteeism, higher turnover and hours of lost productivity, the losses can be staggering. Some of the costs and potential benefits of having an ergonomics process are highlighted in the infographic "10 Reasons Why You Need Office Ergonomics" (figure 1).
Excuse No. 2: We provided new office chairs. That should be enough, right?
Improving ergonomic seating across an organization can have tangible benefits over worn or improper seating. However, new evidence now links prolonged sitting with a number of health concerns beside increased MSD risk. The simple act of sitting has been shown to increase intervertebral disk pressure, and the overall body of knowledge on the detrimental health effects of prolonged sitting has been building over the past few years.
In a 2012 Australian study, researchers analyzed the results of 18 studies with a total of nearly 800,000 participants and found prolonged sitting increases the risk of diabetes (112 percent), cardiovascular events (147 percent), death from cardiovascular causes (90 percent) and death from all causes (49 percent). The study found that adults who sat for 11 hours or more a day had a 40 percent increased risk of dying in the next three years than those who sat for fewer than four hours a day.
Most concerning is that the unsettling data association held true even after taking into account physical activity, weight and health status. Further data from the study shows that sitting may be as harmful to your health as smoking: Every hour of sitting cuts about 22 minutes from your life span. By contrast, it is estimated that smokers shorten their lives by approximately 11 minutes per cigarette.
Despite these dire statistics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's 2011 Take-a-Stand project brings some good news. It found that using a sit-stand device designed to fit an employee's workstation reduced time spent sitting by an average of 224 percent (66 minutes per day), reduced upper back and neck pain by 54 percent and improved employee mood states. According to the study, "This project was successful in reducing sedentary behaviors of workers and suggests reduced sitting time improves worker health."
Excuse No. 3: Our people don't need office ergonomics education. We have extremely bright and talented people.
We often hear that companies don't need to provide office ergonomics education because people already should know what to do. Quite the opposite situation exists, as data indicates that education in proper postures and encouragement of equipment adjustments can have a positive impact. Successful companies utilize online office ergonomics e-learning programs to train large numbers of people in a short period of time.
It also is important to recognize the need for education in equipment adjustment. Simply put, failure to make a proper equipment adjustment provides the same result as not offering it at all. I've seen companies that have provided expensive adjustable chairs and flexible sit-to-stand workstations but did not show the office occupants how to use them under the assumption that users would intuitively know how to adjust the equipment to fit their individual anthropometrics.The reality is t
Training employees in office ergonomics is key. It is not until workers understand why an ergonomic workstation is important, and how to set up equipment such as adjustable furniture, computer monitors, placement of phone, etc., that they achieve a stimulating and healthy environment.
Excuse No. 4: We can't assess everyone's workstation.
The prevailing thoughts in the past were that every office occupant needed a one-on-one assessment in order to meet their office ergonomics needs. This methodology proved to be a drain on organizational resources and frequently delayed the response time in priority cases.
A more efficient and streamlined approach has replaced this dated method. Today, leading companies use online, interactive self-assessment screening modules to immediately bring office ergonomics to entire organizations, not just to individuals. Simple, clear and directed tutorials enable the user to assess their office ergonomics conditions. Typically, these modules educate in ergonomics principles, outline the role the employee has in the process and instruct users on how to identify and then correct problem areas.
Data collected on the effects of using this type of training indicates that about 80 percent of office occupants can adopt a low-risk working position and workstation setup without a one-on-one assessment. The remaining employees who require additional action can be identified and their needs can be addressed quickly. Data also shows that simple corrective actions are required for only about 10 percent of occupants, and the remaining 5 percent to 10 percent require individual assessments. These statistics may seem trivial but they become significant when you have thousands of employees who require assessments.
Supporting your world-class workforce requires a world-class work environment – an office environment that is comfortable, productive, healthy and safe.
Josh Kerst, B.S.E., CPE, CIE, is vice president and ergonomics engineer for Humantech. He has served for the last 20-plus years as lead project consultant for hundreds of ergonomic assessments, training courses and design projects for aerospace, transportation, medical-device, pharmaceutical, warehousing, food-processing, janitorial and foundry operations. Some of his clients include Pratt & Whitney, Hospira, Kohler, the National Cancer Institute, Alcoa, Procter & Gamble, Bemis, Bell Helicopter, Eli Lilly, Marathon Oil, Genentech and Snap-On.