Ergonomics is a term thrown about to sell just about everything these days. It is important to first address ‘What is Ergonomics’? Ergonomics is the Application of scientific information concerning humans to the design of objects, systems and environment for use by humans. Ergonomics therefore is relevant to everything that we do, work, sport or leisure. Importantly ergonomics is about altering the environment to fit the user rather than the other way around.
Even the simplest of products can be a nightmare to use if poorly designed. These days, the designers of products are often far removed from the end users, which makes it vital to adopt a user-centred approach to office design, including studying people using equipment, talking to them and asking them to test objects. This is especially important with ‘inclusive design‘ where the interaction of the human and product is for prolonged periods, such as whilst at work. Physical ergonomics is concerned with human anatomical, anthropometric, physiological and biomechanical characteristics as they relate to physical activity. At work this includes working postures, material handling, repetitive movements, workplace layout and work related health and safety. All these factors need to be addressed in order to create a positive work experience.
The starting point when looking at ergonomics is to analyse what are the physical demands at work. Most work related injuries and discomfort occur from prolonged poor posture and prolonged periods of physical stress. Consider whether the demands of work require prolonged tasks with limited opportunities for change in tasks and activities, such as clerical, administrative and other office based tasks. The second part of ergonomics is to analyse posture and areas of physical stress to all parts of the body. Once the risk factors are determined (level and duration of stress), a strategy of negating risk factors can be devised. This is where ‘ergonomics’ becomes an important tool to improve productivity, reduce work related pain and discomfort and reduce workplace injury.
Common office work related ailments
There is an ever increasing presentation of OOS (occupational overuse syndrome) otherwise referred to as RSI. Repetitive strain is a mechanism of injury, leading to prolonged stress.
Causes of RSI
Often RSI is brought about by repeated movements of the same muscles, tendons and ligaments. People as varied as meatpackers, musicians, and computer typists have suffered from RSI. Recently, software engineers have become a group afflicted with the disease. Despite the prominence of repetition (as evidenced by the name Repetitive Strain Injury), the types of injuries that fall under the umbrella of RSI also include injuries brought about by low repetition. This means that, while repetition is a risk factor of RSI, so is awkward posture. Anyone who engages in low repetition of an activity but does so from a position of awkward posture is exposing themselves to the risk of an RSI type injury.
Work related RSI is frequently not the result of any acute event (such as a fall or a direct physical blow) but rather it is the result of a more insidious gradual or chronic development. Therefore, it may be harder to detect the onset of the disease. It is important that as soon as an individual experiences any of the symptoms of RSI, they seek medical advice as soon as possible.
RSI Risk Factors
According to the scientific literature there are, in broad terms a number of risk factors for RSI.
In addition to these risk factors it is believed that individual factors may influence the degree of risk from specific exposures. There is some evidence to suggest that psychosocial factors related to the work environment might play a role in the development of MSDs (musculo-skeletal disorders). Some scientific studies have suggested that perceptions of intensified workload, monotonous work, limited job control, low job clarity, and low social support are associated with various MSDs. Furthermore individual characteristics may also influence the development of RSI. For example physical limitations or pre-existing health problems may make someone more susceptible to MSD.
Where the RSI is thought to be work related a two pronged approach is often appropriate. This approach involves both physical and administrative steps. The preferred approach to prevent and control for MSDs is to design the job (including workstation layout, use of tool and work methods) to take into account the capabilities and limitations of the workforce. Our equipment, such as specialised keyboards, mice and adjustable tables and chairs, may be considered a physical approach.
Good ergonomics should focus on reducing prolonged stress to the body and reducing repetitive strain. Some basic principles in achieving good ergonomic practice and therefore f this include, dynamic seating, sit stand workstations and peripherals to reduce upper limb stress.
Dynamic Seating and Sitting With An Open Hip Angle
The office chair is probably the most important piece of furniture that a person can invest in. Choosing a chair that is appropriate to your work, or as a child, a study chair, can help to support you when sitting for prolonged periods and help ensure that you don’t develop MSDs. Work and school demands put ever increasing demands to sit for long periods, Choosing a chair that is comfortable and one that promotes you to move is an ideal way to prevent prolonged poor postures. As we sit, our body generally tends to start going into rest mode, the core postural muscles disengage, resulting in slouched or hunched posture. Studies for many years have shown that sitting increases the pressure through the back, specifically the lower back by up to twice as much as standing (when someone is in a slouched position). To help avoid this, it is important to try and sit with an open hip angle (ideally greater than 110˚). This can be achieved in a number of ways, by tilting the seat pan forward, by having a chair that offers dynamic movement or by using a saddle seat. Dynamic Movement is also shown to reduce the onset of muscular disorders of the upper back and neck by eliminating prolonged postures. It is important to remember that our bodies are designed for movement, and it is only since the invention of computers, cars and television that sitting has become the predominant activity in our lives. Dynamic seating helps to reintroduce movement into what has traditionally been a static posture. Dynamic movement also helps with blood circulation (by activating muscles which work as a pump) and hence helps to keep us more alert and productive through the day.
Sit Stand Workstation
Reducing the amount that we sit through the day is another tool to try and reduce work related
stress and MSD. When we stand, our metabolism increases, core muscles are activated, improving posture and blood circulation in improved through the use of leg muscles acting as pumps. A study by Dr James Levine of the Mayo Clinic in the USA found that standing increases metabolism by up to 20% as opposed to sitting. The benefits are obvious, but none more so than that standing perfectly still causes our bodies to burn up to 20% more calories than sitting down. Standing also helps to improve spinal posture and reduce stress through the back. This alone is the reason that most people with disc related lower back pain will prefer to stand, rather than sit. It also accounts for the greatly reduced onset of upper back muscle pain in people working within a job where standing for the majority of the day is required. No matter how you look at it, standing is a far better way to work than sitting. In an office environment, it often a benefit for workers to have a good dynamic chair, along with a sit stand table, so that they can have periods of standing and periods of supportive dynamic seating, so much so that in the majority of Scandinavia it is law that employers have to provide an easily (electric) height adjustable workstation to people who work in an office environment.
Importantly with the increasing demands for mousing, typing and the use of monitor screens, peripheral equipment such as mouses and keyboards as well as monitor arms and document holders are important tools to reduce repetitive tasks and prolonged stressful task completion. Common issues that can arise include reaching to the side when using the mouse, twisting of the forearm for prolonged periods (forearm pronation), neck flexion (looking down) for long periods and wrist extension and deviation when typing. Selecting a good mouse will help to reduces forearm twisting and reaching to the side. Monitor arms will help to free up space on the workstation and ensure that the monitor is at the right height and distance reducing neck flexion or having to lean forward when looking at the monitor. Our staff can help you choose a product that will reduce risk factors when using the computer for long periods.