Achieving the benefits of an ergonomic workplace

Monday, August 14, 2017

Are you sitting comfortably?  

Chances are, you’re sitting as you read this – we all spend more time sitting than our parents and certainly our grandparents did, with some of us on our rear ends for 8-10 hours a day. Have a think about it – we sit in our cars or on the train to commute, sit at our desks at work, come home and sit down for dinner, then sit in front of the TV, helping the kids with their homework, or back onto the laptop for a last dose of emails.  

The way we work

If we look at the work environment, many of us still remember having to get up to go to the fax machine, the mail room or to see a colleague in another department.  Those tasks have been replaced by electronic communication. Fortunately we don’t yet get our caffeine fix electronically, but for many, that is now the only reason to move from our chair. 

The risks of sitting still

The risks of a highly sedentary lifestyle are well understood – it is a significant contributing factor to cardiovascular disease, which accounts for 30% of annual deaths in Australia, making it one of the country’s most serious health issues.

It’s not simply the fact of sitting that can cause health problems, it is also how we sit, and how we interact with the equipment - such as keyboards and screens – that we use whilst we’re at our desks. 

Switch it up

Studies have shown, for example that the ability to switch between sitting and standing position is good for energy, productivity and overall health, and sit/stand desks, which enable a smooth and effortless transition from one position to another are becoming a feature of more and more offices. 

Kirsty Angerer, one of Australia’s leading ergonomists, specialising in workplace ergonomics, said: “The most effective way to work is to spend 20 minutes sitting, 8 minutes standing and 2 minutes moving”. This research comes from Dr. Alan Hedge at Cornell University and has been shown to minimise risk of musculoskeletal disorders. With this 30-minute cycle people make 16 sit stand transitions throughout the day. 

Force, repetition and posture 

When we do sit, the way we sit makes all the difference between comfort and pain, between health and debilitating back/neck/leg conditions. Our chairs, the angle of our screen and keyboard, the height of our desk can all, if not correctly calibrated, contribute to painful repetitive strain injuries. The three factors that contribute to work related musculoskeletal disorders (WRMSDs) are force, repetition and posture. Ideally we should be working in neutral posture – meaning that the joints are not bent and the spine is aligned and not twisted. 

Wrist Extension is one of the biggest causes of issues such as RSI and carpal tunnel syndrome, which typically occurs when we use a fixed height desk and have our keyboard tabs up. The ideal posture is to keep our wrists neutral (as straight as possible), and workplaces are enabling this with tools such as keyboard trays that create a ‘hands in lap’ position and negatively tilt away from you to encourage a more neutral wrist posture. 

The difficulty of adjusting

Adjustable chairs are a feature of many workplaces, and seen for years as an answer to the question of good ergonomics. The problem with those is that most people don’t really know which levers do what and so don’t actually bother to adjust them. 

A study published last year by Cornell University (Hedge, 2016, Proc, HFES, 60(1), 785-9) found that most users adjust the seat height. This percentage dramatically reduces to less than 15% for every other control on the chair. People don’t make manual adjustments due to the complexity of chairs. Decision time and errors increase logarithmically as the number of choices increases – this is Hicks Law. 

The move to passive ergonomics

The new answer is ‘passive ergonomics’; whereby the fit between the human operator and the environment happens automatically.  Chairs that encourage movement automatically, chairs that have automatic lumbar support without making a manual adjustment, armrests that move up and down at the same time. 

It’s not just office workers who benefit from ergonomically designed workstations. It surprises most people to know that the highest workplace injury rate is suffered by nurses. Pushing heavy medical carts and using technology equipment in short bursts, with no time to adjust screen height and keyboard angle leads to strain related injuries. Here too, passive ergonomic equipment is making a significant difference to the quality of their working environment – carts that adjust all settings to the user’s height with the press of a single button, and which are designed for ease of movement between patients.  

Research, design and education

“The world of ergonomics is really exciting right now”, says Kirsty “in-depth research is showing us how to design products that make everyday workplaces so much healthier and productive and workers are reaping the benefits”. “Having well designed environments and products is not solely the answer; we need to make sure that the people using these products are well educated on the features and benefits. Ergonomics Programs are key to the success of a healthy organisation”. 

By Gavin Blakelock (Sektor Ergonomics Product Specialist)