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Ergonomics 101: Reinventing the Workplace for Better Productivity

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Table of Contents

  • Understanding Workplace Ergonomics
  • Why Do You Need Workplace Ergonomics?
  • Benefits of Proper Ergonomics in the Workplace
  • How to Set Up a Healthy Workspace
  • Best Ergonomic Practices for the Office
  • Essential Ergonomics Stats to Keep in Mind
  • Different MSDs Caused by Improper Ergonomics and How to Prevent Them
  • Conclusion
  • References

The key to a successful business is a happy and highly motivated workforce. When employees’ well-being is prioritized, they tend to be more proactive in helping the company achieve its goals and objectives.

However, ensuring that employees are in good hands when they work does not stop with providing them with tools to do their jobs, fun activities that will help maintain the optimal level of motivation, and even handsome compensation.

Sometimes, employee benefits extend to knowing exactly what they need to work and realize their full potential. This means providing them with a healthy working environment that can contribute to their overall well-being, such as consulting experts and purchasing the right equipment to make their workplace injury-free.

This was not the case during the height of the pandemic when many employees had to work from the comfort of their homes, and setting up their workspace fell into their hands. Arranging a makeshift office can be challenging, especially when most are unaware of the proper and healthier way to put up a workstation.

This brings us to the subject of workplace ergonomics. What is it, and why do you need it?

Whether you are an employee or employer for office or remote work, this article will give you a firm understanding of workplace ergonomics, including setting up your desk for the healthiest and most productive results. Read on to learn how to improve your workspace at home and what to do if and when you return to the office.

Understanding Workplace Ergonomics

Understanding Workplace Ergonomics

In an increasingly digital world, computers are indispensable in the workplace. Perhaps, the greatest oversight when this reliable technology was invented was the failure to consider how the human body interacts with the equipment. Slumped in the chair eight hours a day with little to no breaks in between can be taxing. Workstations not correctly designed to support one’s posture can lead to fatigue, frustration, and even illnesses.

Working professionals glued to their desks for long periods often complain of malfunctioning low back or upper extremities. In 1999, nearly a million people needed work breaks to recover from work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). Every year, MSDs are accountable for almost 70 million doctor visits in the country. MSDs can lead to injury that is often painful and costly.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), musculoskeletal disorders can affect several essential body parts, including muscles, nerves, blood vessels, tendons, and ligaments. Exposure to certain tasks at work, such as lifting heavy items, reaching overhead, working awkwardly in front of the desk, or performing the same jobs repeatedly, can contribute to the risk factors of MSDs.

Fortunately, work-related MSDs are preventable through the wonders of ergonomics. The term ergonomics describes a scientific discipline that studies the physical interactions between human beings and their environment, often considering each element in a system in relation to the human. The International Ergonomics Association defines the term as the “science of work.”

Derived from the Greek word ergon, which means work, and nomos, which means laws, ergonomics as a discipline seeks to understand the interactions between humans and other elements of a system. It is also concerned with the profession that applies several factors to optimize human well-being and overall system performance, including theory, data, principles, methods, and design.

The discipline draws from many fields, including engineering design and physical therapy. When you apply the principles of ergonomics, you are trying to fit workplace conditions and job demands to the needs and capabilities of the workforce. This means determining the proper desk height and chair and providing the setup correctly. This also applies to the computer and monitor, the placement of the keyboard and mouse, and many other work area features.

Why Do We Need Workplace Ergonomics?

Why Do We Need Workplace Ergonomics?

The increasing risk of work-related musculoskeletal disorders and workplace injuries calls for proper intervention, primarily involving implementing the ergonomics principles.

Ergonomics is integral in increasing comfort while you work and, in the process, lessening stress and boosting productivity. Without the proper equipment and work setup, you will be at risk of musculoskeletal disorders, often caused by repetitive motions during office work. OSHA listed work-related MSDs as one of the most frequently reported root causes of lost or restricted work time.

Not only can a comfortable workspace help you concentrate better. A properly designed and implemented workspace can also promote an injury-free office environment. By setting up an ergonomic workspace, you are doing your part in preventing MSD from developing.

Ergonomics recognizes that each person will need a different setup because they differ in height, weight, abilities, etc. This means that in workplace ergonomics, you fit the job space to the person to increase productivity, reduce muscle fatigue, and the development of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).

A physical therapist consulting on the ergonomic design of an office or home office measures data and applies theory, principles, and the best available methods to design an optimized environment for the individual. When conducted in an at-home environment, the physical therapist would likely make only one such consultation. However, in an office environment, they’d meet with individual workers to take measurements and interview them about existing conditions, such as carpal tunnel syndrome.

Ergonomics aims to eliminate injuries and disorders and reduce the stress associated with muscle strain, bad posture, and repeated tasks. Spreading awareness among employees about the importance of workplace ergonomics can help alleviate and even avoid the risk factors of work-related disorders and injuries.

Benefits of Proper Ergonomics in the Workplace

Benefits of Proper Ergonomics in the Workplace

Working compels you to do repetitive tasks that can affect your posture. It can also usher in stress and even affect your musculoskeletal system. Hence, your body will experience common symptoms, such as fatigue, discomfort, and pain. This can be concerning if left unattended. CDC cited implementing ergonomics programs in the office to prevent or control injuries and disorders from too much exposure to MSD’s risk factors. Here are some of the compelling benefits of proper ergonomics in the workplace.

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Reduce Costs

Ensuring proper ergonomics is observed in the workplace can translate to increased savings—both for the employer and the employees. Ergonomics can lessen risk factors that can help you reduce costs.

For employers, this means encountering fewer injuries. According to OSHA Oregon, the average direct cost of a worker’s compensation claim for MSD can amount to $14,120. This does not include indirect costs that can bring the total average claim cost to more than $32,000.

Other costs employers can save from include reduced workdays, restricted days, and labor costs. Avoiding MSDs and other work-related disorders and injuries means companies can lower turnover rates and minimize acquiring and training new employees, which often proves to be costlier than retaining experienced ones.

On the part of employees, ergonomics best practices, whether in the office or at home, can be quite helpful in ensuring your steady income stream. Staying healthy and injury-free will not force you to take emergency leaves from work or dip your hands into your savings to cover medical and other related costs.

Improve Productivity

Improve Productivity

Implementing the ergonomic process in the workspace can improve productivity. If you design a workplace in a way that allows employees to maintain good posture, exert less, minimize motions, and manage better heights and reaches, they will more likely become efficient in their tasks.

Some ergonomic solutions in the workplace, like mechanical assists, adjustable height lift tables and workstations, powered equipment, and other ergonomic tools, can remove barriers that slow work down. You can meet your deadlines without exerting too much physical effort.

You can get work done in your comfort zone by reducing awkward postures. This means less fatigue and more motivation to work more efficiently, which can help boost productivity.

Enhance Work Quality

Enhance Work Quality

Both employers and employees can benefit from ergonomic principles by improving work quality. Frustrated and exhausted workers are more prone to mistakes and errors at work, which can be costly in the long run if it means affected output and dissatisfied clients. Companies that create products might have to spend double when product quality issues arise.

Employees working from home often rely on their efficiency to deliver for clients, so there is little room for mistakes. By creating an ergonomic workspace, they can work comfortably and focus on the tasks at hand. The quality of their work can mean better compensation and more opportunities for promotions.

Create a Healthier Work Environment

Create a Healthier Work Environment

By properly setting up your office with the guidance of ergonomic principles, you reduce the chance of incurring on-the-job accidents. You might think that only happens to workers on manufacturing lines, but it can also be expected in offices and home offices. Awkward postures in front of your desk or bending to extract things from your printer can cause workplace injury.

Other activities that frequently cause problems include repeatedly reaching overhead and pulling or pushing heavy loads. Any repetitive tasks mentioned and others you might experience create risk factors that increase the potential for an on-the-job injury.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, musculoskeletal disorders account for 34% of workers who miss work. Setting up your home office correctly can prevent this from occurring.

How to Set Up a Healthy Workspace

How to Set Up a Healthy Workspace

Poorly designed workplaces can increase MSDs risk factors which can be detrimental to your health. A sound office ergonomic program must be part of your company’s commitment to employee welfare. Even those working from home can benefit greatly from an effective ergonomic process in their respective workspace.  

Best Ergonomic Practices for the Office

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Here are some steps to help you set up a healthy workplace.

  1. Understand the ergonomic process. Learn about general ergonomics and the essential elements of an effective ergonomic office, including furniture and technology features. This will help you prepare the space for a more productive and healthier employee environment.
  1. Choose the right ergonomic furniture. Remember that ergonomic furniture allows comfortable sitting and working for extended periods. A desk chair, for example, must feature quality lumbar support. It must be able to support one’s lower back, shoulders, and neck. An ergonomic chair must have a flexible feature that lets employees adjust the height according to their needs.
  1. Optimize workstation placements. Ergonomic practices need to optimize how employees interact with the objects in their workstations, especially their computer equipment. This means putting the monitor in the center to avoid neck and shoulder pain. Be mindful of windows so that employees can prevent glare from the sun.
  1. Meet the office lighting standards. There is a requirement for the right amount of light for every work environment, as specified by the US General Services Administration (GSA). The light should be set at 500 lumens per square meter. For a 6' by 6' cubicle, you will need to provide the same light as a 35-watt incandescent bulb.
  1. Involve employees. As reinforced by ergonomics expert Jill Kelby, they must be directly involved in worksite assessments and solution developments to make the ergonomic process successful. That includes getting their help in identifying and providing information about workplace hazards and assisting the process by voicing their concerns and suggestions to reduce exposure to risk factors.
  1. Provide training for awareness and benefits. Ensure that employees know the importance of ergonomic practices in the workplace. Inform them of ergonomic-related concerns in the workplace and advise them to report early symptoms of MSDs.
  1. Evaluate the progress of the ergonomic process. You must monitor and assess the progress of the implemented ergonomic solutions and practices in the office and ensure they are maintained for long-term success. You will need to determine whether your goals for the ergonomic process are set and have been met.

Best Ergonomic Practices for the Home Office

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Donna Costa, an occupational therapist from the University of Las Vegas, cited the device and chair as the two main issues concerning the common mistakes people make when configuring their home office. It isn't easy to set up an ergonomic workspace at home, unlike in an office environment, where ergonomics experts may be available for consultation.

The following tips are designed for people who work from home to help them ensure an ergonomic workplace:

  1. Set your monitor up so that the top of the screen is at eye level. You should not need to lean forward to see your screen to avoid straining your eyes, neck, and shoulders.
  1. Choose an adjustable chair with lower back support and armrests to support your elbows. The seat must be wide and deep enough to provide a good fit and comfort.
  1. Keep your feet flat and firmly on the floor to support the weight of your legs. If your feet can’t reach the floor, get a footrest or a makeshift one made of books and other solid objects.
  1. Keep your keyboard within easy reach, allowing you to keep your upper arms and elbows close to your body. Your wrists should not rest on the table or the keyboard. Try using a riser to place your monitor or keyboard at the right height.
  1. Assume a neutral positiona relaxed but straight posture with your elbows and your knees bent at 90 degrees. Keep your chin at a 90-degree angle with your neck. Keep your shoulders back and maintain an upright position instead of slouching. If you need help maintaining an appropriate posture, you aren’t the only one. Try a posture corrector.
  1. Place your monitor on a swing arm attached to the wall. This lets you move it to the height and depth you need.
  1. Try a standing desk if you enjoy standing while you work. You will also need a standing desk stool for active sitting as an alternative to standing. Alternatively, you might want an adjustable height desk as it lets you use either standing or sitting.
  1. Choose the right work desk. Most desks designed for computer use offer a pull-out tray on the left-hand side at the bottom. This placement provides optimum ergonomic placement. Its height typically precludes you from bending over to pull it out.
  1. Follow the proper lighting practice. Place a lamp on or over your desk, so you can increase the lighting in the area when needed. Use a lamp with multiple light settings and adjustable angles for the best results.
  1. Organize your desk. Store the items you need most frequently in your top drawer. This makes them easy to reach, and you won’t need to bend over to retrieve them.

Essential Ergonomics Stats to Keep in Mind

Essential Ergonomics Stats to Keep in Mind Infographic

  • Back pain is considered one of the most common medical conditions.
  • Surveyed participants with a dedicated room for their workstation setup encountered fewer new issues. On the other hand, physical problems were common among those who spent more time at the workstation, dealing with higher workloads and lack of knowledge in adjusting their workspace.
  • The problems with back and neck pain forced many Americans to visit their physicians.
  • MSDs and other posture-related disorders can be quite costly.
  • Nathaniel Melendez, an exercise physiologist at Orlando Health’s National Training Center, cited the causes of bad posture, including scrolling through the phone, working at a desk, or lounging on a couch. This means putting your body through strain when not aligned correctly can contribute to pain and postural issues.

Different MSDs Caused by Improper Ergonomics and How to Prevent Them

Skeleton Diagram Showing Different MSDs Caused by Improper Ergonomics

MSDs related to work are often associated with common risk factors, such as work postures and movements, repetitiveness and pace of work, force of movements, temperature, vibration, and increased pressure, among others. These factors can manifest into different kinds of MSDs, which can include the following:

Back Pain and Injury

Listed among the top 10 reasons for medical visits, back pain can quickly develop into a chronic disorder. Low back pain is one of the MSDs resulting from improper ergonomics and muscle strain. Warning signs for this disorder include numbness, weakness in one or both legs, problems with urinating, light-headedness, and severe pain anywhere in the belly.

How to Prevent

Severe pain can be alleviated with a good rest for a day or two. Usually, you can treat common back pain by applying heat or cold to the painful area. For prevention, you need to implement an ergonomic workplace redesign to avoid strains and the ensuing pain in your back. This includes using the right desk, chair, and equipment. Adjusting your work schedule and workload to something more bearable is another way to prevent back pain and other health-related issues.

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

When you repetitively place undue pressure on your wrists, it affects the nerves, creating a sharp pain with tingling and numbness, referred to as carpal tunnel syndrome. According to the CDC, carpal tunnel syndrome is the compression of the median nerve at the wrist and may affect as many as 1.9 million people.

This disorder is associated with the peripheral nervous system, including the nerves and ganglia outside the spinal cord and brain. Without proper treatment, it can affect your mobility. Untreated, it can cause partial paralysis. You will need to undergo a lifestyle change, like using a wrist splint and altering your environment. In some severe cases, surgery might be necessary.

How to Prevent

Workstation changes that involve proper seating and hand and wrist placement can help reduce the risk factors for this disorder. Other measures may include sleeping with your wrists held straight, avoiding repeated flexing and extending your wrists, and decreasing repetitive and strong grasping with the wrist in a flexed position.

Bursitis

Repetitive movements cause swelling and pain in the small fluid sac that typically lubricates the areas between the bones and other parts of the musculoskeletal system—the muscles, tendons, tissues, and ligaments. Bursitis can occur at the elbow, shoulder, or knee.

How to Prevent 

Make it a point to do a warm-up exercise before you get into your tasks, especially if this involves repetitive movements. It would help if you also took breaks in between tasks. When you feel pain due to some activities, stop and rest. It is essential to practice good posture and position your body properly when doing your daily activities.

Tendinitis

Poor posture causes tendonitis, the inflammation of the strong fibers connecting muscles and bones. Tendinitis typically affects joints at the ankle, elbow, shoulder, kneecap, or wrist. Tendons, the connective tissues that hold muscles to bones, often reach when muscles contract, causing the bones to move. According to the American College of Rheumatology, too much stress on your muscles and joints can tear and even inflame your tendons. If the damage happens often, there is a tendency for the pain to be constant.

How to Prevent 

To prevent tendonitis, you need to warm up before repetitive tasks. You will need to learn the proper method and the use of appropriate equipment for activities to avoid straining your tendons.

In Conclusion

Nowadays, it is common to see workplace injuries and disorders, many of which are brought about by poorly designed workplaces. This highlights and reinforces the importance of developing and implementing a solid ergonomic process to transform workspaces into a place of comfort and efficiency.

Ergonomic practices can help companies and employees work healthier, faster, and more productively as they seek to eliminate barriers posed by workstations that do not adhere to ergonomic principles. Workplaces designed with ergonomics in mind can help employees, including those who work at home, reduce stress, fatigue, and discomfort and avoid the costly development of work-related injuries and disorders like MSDs.

In the process, they will also be able to reach their common goals through increased productivity and higher profit margins.

References

  • American College of Rheumatology Committee on Communications and Marketing. (2021, December). Tendinitis & Bursitis. American College of Rheumatology. https://www.rheumatology.org/I-Am-A/Patient-Caregiver/Diseases-Conditions/Tendinitis-Bursitis
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2020, February 12). Work-Related Musculoskeletal Disorders & Ergonomics | Workplace Health Strategies by Condition | Workplace Health Promotion | CDC. https://www.cdc.gov/workplacehealthpromotion/health-strategies/musculoskeletal-disorders/index.html#:%7E:text=Work-related%20musculoskeletal%20disorders%20(WMSD)%20are%20conditions%20in%20which,longer%20due%20to%20work%20conditions
  • International Ergonomics Association (IEA). (n.d.). What Is Ergonomics? https://iea.cc/what-is-ergonomics/
  • John Hopkins Medicine. (n.d.). Bursitis. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/bursitis
  • Lindberg, S. (2020, April 8). What to Look for in a Posture Corrector, Plus 5 We Recommend. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/best-posture-corrector#what-to-look-for-in-a-posture-corrector
  • Middlesworth, M. (2015, April 6). Should You Involve Team Members in the Ergonomics Process? (Seven Ergonomics Experts Weigh In). ErgoPlus. https://ergo-plus.com/team-members-ergonomics-experts/
  • Middlesworth, M. (2020, January 31). 5 Proven Benefits of Ergonomics in the Workplace. ErgoPlus. https://ergo-plus.com/workplace-ergonomics-benefits/
  • Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). (n.d.). Ergonomics - Overview | Occupational Safety and Health Administration. https://www.osha.gov/ergonomics
  • Oregon OSHA. (2009, October). The Advantages of Ergonomics. https://osha.oregon.gov/OSHAPubs/ergo/ergoadvantages.pdf
  • Orlando Health & National Training Center. (2019, October 9). Survey Finds Less Than 1/2 of Americans Concerned about Poor Posture. EurekAlert! https://www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/549082
  • OrthoInfo. (n.d.). Diseases & Conditions: Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/diseases--conditions/carpal-tunnel-syndrome/#:~:text=Carpal%20tunnel%20syndrome%20is%20a,syndrome%20gets%20worse%20over%20time.
  • Palkhivala, A. (2001, July 2). Is Your Job a Pain in the Back? WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/back-pain/features/job-back-pain
  • Parker-Pope, T. (2008, February 13). Americans Spend More to Treat Spine Woes. The
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  • Statista. (2020, September 11). US Adults Who Visited a Health Care Professional for Neck or Back Pain in 2018. https://www.statista.com/statistics/935353/health-care-professional-visit-for-neck-or-back-pain-in-us/
  • Summers, K. (2021, September 1). Ergonomics 101: Working from Home During Coronavirus. University of Nevada, Las Vegas. https://www.unlv.edu/news/release/ergonomics-101-working-home-during-coronavirus
  • Todd, S. (2021, September 1). Why is Ergonomics Important in the Workplace? (Effects, Equipment, and Costs of Ergonomics). Open Sourced Workplace. https://opensourcedworkplace.com/news/why-is-ergonomics-important-in-the-workplace-effects-equipment-and-costs-of-ergonomics
  • US General Services Administration (GSA). (2019, September 26). 6.15 Lighting. GSA. https://www.gsa.gov/node/82715
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