Most Workplace Ergonomics Approaches Miss This Simple Truth

Are you aware that there is a simple factor missing from (or buried so deep as to have negligible impact) most workplace ergonomics approaches? Let’s set the stage with a quick look at what most industrial and office ergonomics improvement approaches entail.

computer on desk

An overview of ergonomics approaches

Workplace ergonomics approaches (including both industrial ergonomics and office ergonomics approaches) typically begin with considering how the job can be best fit to the worker. This includes such considerations as:

Job design

The overall design of the human work activity by assignment, including what work is being performed, for what purpose, what personnel are involved, and what means are used to perform the job.

Tools and equipment

The tools and equipment used to perform the job, and how they are set up, adjusted, and used. This also includes specifications about whether equipment is specified for a given task or if there are options that the end user can choose from.

Posture and movement

This category goes by various names, including “physical technique”, “body use and position,” and “movement skills and habits.” All of these refer to the idea that the worker has a level of options available to them related to how they position their body and move it to accomplish the work at hand. These options are limited by several factors including:

  • The worker’s physical size, condition, and capabilities (including any limitations they may have)
  • Skills and understanding of movement approaches and options for a given task
  • Environmental factors that affect posture and movement choices (for example, a chair that without height adjustability dictates possible seating positions, and handle cutouts on a bin may limit hand positions available for carrying) which also relates to other human factors in the perception of the task and options available the worker for the approach to a physical task.

Aids and assists

This includes devices and equipment that may make an existing task easier, such as straps to aid in lifting, or a powered lifting aid. Note that this is technically a subcategory of tools and equipment, but is particularly referring to aids and assists that can be brought to bear in an existing job or task, rather than being made part of the core job design

In practice

Those basic areas describe most of what is addressed or changed in workplace ergonomics. Picture an office setting, where there may be two basic components that are evident from this sort of intervention

  1. Setup is changed by means of altering chair, monitor, and keyboard equipment and position.
  2. Instruction is given to the worker regarding preferred body position at work and how to achieve it with adjustments to their setup.

What’s ignored…

So you have a reasonable and well-put together approach as is described above (which turns out to be fairly typical for office ergonomics interventions in particular) that is regularly deployed in workplaces all over, yet a very important concept is often glossed over if it is covered at all. The concept is this: Even a very well optimized body position does not work so well if the worker does not vary their position regularly.

Why is this an issue?

Static loading, where muscles must hold the body in a single position for a long period, is an established musculoskeletal injury risk factor. holding positions for extended periods without movement reduces circulation and contributes to stress on the muscles and connective tissues. The greater the exertion required to maintain a given static position the higher the stress on the body.

How to implement this idea

Consider how that understanding and conveying the benefits of varied body position can improve your ergonomic program results significantly. Move your discussions and instruction from the idea of one correct setup to a range of preferred setup options. Here’s a little exercise to convey the concept:

Midway through your ergonomics training session, after the basic setup concepts have been discussed, show your trainees an example of a traditionally good workstation setup, such as the one below.

One example of a "textbook" setup

One example of a “textbook” setup

Ask them how favorable it would be to use that position at work. (note how the question is worded in a bit of a vague way to encourage some engagement with the idea). You may get a range of answers, but if the consensus is “yes, ” then ask the clarifying question, “So would this be a good position to work in all day?…” At which point you can highlight that is a great starting position, but that even still needs to be varied to reduce stresses on the body.

At this point, you can highlight that they have a few options for varying positions, including:
Small variations in the same basic configuration (leaning forward or back a bit, bringing legs forward or back), which can be attained without re-adjusting anything in the workstation.
Small adjustments to the workstation, such as raising or lowering the chair slightly.
Switching basic positions, such as going from sitting to standing.
Brief deliberate “micro breaks” at the workstation, such as sitting back and performing a hand and arm stretch for just a few seconds every now and then.
Leaving the workstation for a time, either to perform a different task, or as a purposeful break of a certain duration.

What do you do to convey this concept?

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