Understanding the value of office ergonomics
Christopher Herbert MPH, MSK
Safety Advisor | Ergonomist
If you work regularly at a desk, are you completely comfortable? After sitting for an hour reading emails or performing some other task, do you feel stiffness in your legs? Are there twinges of pain in your thighs? How about your neck?
Often, when we notice pain and discomfort, we immediately think in terms of buying something like a leg rest in the hope that it will make us more comfortable. We don’t take the time to identify and remedy the condition that’s causing the pain and discomfort in the first place.
In industrial settings, safety professionals are trained to consider engineering-based solutions to mitigate or eliminate hazards. For example, if safety professionals notice that workers using a particular piece of machinery experience more stress and strain injuries than employees who use other equipment, they’ll look for a way to modify the machinery. Perhaps they’ll change a grip or add some kind of cushion.
But when it comes to offices and office-like environments, companies rarely apply the same kind of thinking. If an office worker is going home with a sore back every evening or seeing a chiropractor because of chronic neck pain, there may be a way to change the work environment and work practices that will eliminate the cause of the problems.
The corner of safety that examines the effect of work practices on our bodies is known as ergonomics. Another way of thinking about ergonomics is that it’s biomechanical engineering for the workplace. Ergonomists have extensive knowledge of the human musculoskeletal system and consider the positions of the body while performing tasks.
An ergonomist would approach the matter of employees leaving with back or neck pain by performing detailed examinations of their work settings. For example, they may measure the heights of chairs and desks and compare them to the ideal settings based upon the employee’s arthropometry. That worker who leaves with back pain every day is 6’ 2”, but his chair and desk are set for a user who’s only 5’ 9”, forcing him to slouch. Adjusting for his height may completely eliminate his discomfort. Just as important, it will reduce the potential for him to lose work time because of that discomfort.
While ergonomics can have a tremendous impact on the well-being of workers and can lead to a significant reduction in injuries and discomfort, it’s an area many companies and managers don’t know much about. Often, there’s some resistance to examining the ergonomics of a workplace because it typically involves some degree of behavior modification, and that can be a tough sell to both workers and managers. And because there are few regulatory requirements related to ergonomics, many companies see it as a value-add instead of a necessity.
Another reason ergonomics may be neglected is that the workplace hazards that tend to get the most attention are those that are potentially catastrophic. For example, fall protection for workers performing tasks in elevated locations is key, because a fall could cause death or serious injury. The effects of poor ergonomics are rarely dramatic, but the damage can accumulate over time, leading to or exacerbating physical conditions.
Take what appears to be a simple, harmless act: reading an article on a monitor. As children, we learn to read by tilting our heads to follow the words in books, so we tend to do the same thing when we’re reading something on a screen. But when you’re sitting at a desk, the text you’re reading should be centered in the screen and adjusted as you go to keep what you’re reading directly in front of you, with your posture straight. If you tilt your head downward to read what’s at the bottom of the screen, your neck is flexing frequently, putting stress on your cervical vertebrae.
Occasional stress on those vertebrae is normal, but when you keep tilting your head for long periods, the stress grows and pressure increases on the nerves that travel through the neck. That pressure begins to affect the discs in your spine, and the more stress the discs receive, the more quickly they’ll degrade. A few days may not do much damage, but years of that extra pressure can lead to significant nerve impingement and other debilitating neural problems.
Another common issue in office environments is the widespread use of laptop computers at workstations that weren’t designed for them. (And laptops weren’t really designed for all-day use in the office, either.) Workers sit down in chairs and behind desks that have been engineered to work with desktop computers. Instead of keeping their necks and backs straight, they’re hunched over and looking at a small screen. Companies that appreciate the value of ergonomics are addressing the issue by attaching external monitors and docking stations that put screens and keyboards at heights that are optimal.
Today’s most prevalent office tool — the mobile device — is creating all sorts of ergonomic-related issues that will become more apparent over time. We think nothing of sending hundreds of text messages in a day, but we don’t consider how detrimental the posture of reading and typing in a smartphone will be to our cervical vertebrae. We’re also being exposed to high levels of blue light from our devices, which may affect our bodies in other ways. Just as there’s a difference between a brief exposure to a toxic chemical and being around it for hours, we need to better understand how the amount of time we spend on mobile devices affects our bodies.
In the same way we expect workers to take responsibility for their safety in industrial settings, by following safe work practices and using the right personal protective equipment, we need to take ownership of other work environments. Learning about ergonomics is to our benefit, because we can take what are often simple steps and make changes right now that will eliminate long-term impacts to our health and even our comfort.
A final thought: as companies respond to the COVID-19 pandemic by asking employees to work from home, they can’t lose sight of OSHA’s mandate to keep the workplace free from known hazards — even if that workplace may now be a dining room table or a kitchen counter. Employers need to be sure they’re addressing ergonomic needs, and employees need to feel comfortable in reaching out to HR departments to ensure their employers are aware of those needs.