Ergonomics is quickly becoming a hot topic in the health and safety industry. With a highly diversified workforce, employers are realizing that a standard workstation approach is not necessarily one size fits all. In fact, an office chair with no adjustments should be considered one size fits most. But what do you do if you hire someone shorter than the average worker the chair was designed for? Do just expect your employee to place stacked books under their dangling feet? This is where ergonomics comes in to play. Ergonomics is all about designing a workstation to fit the employee, not hiring an employee to fit the workstation. However, you must also keep in mind that standard ergonomics uses a 95th percentile benchmark so if you have employees well outside the norm of height or weight you may need to make additional adjustments.

Knowing When You Have an Ergonomics Problem

How do you know if you have an ergonomic problem at your workplace? Observing your employees plays a key role in identifying areas in need of ergonomic design. You might notice employees positioning their monitors a certain way or moving the workstation around in unexpected ways. You may also notice the employees rubbing their necks or back areas due to muscle strain from standing, sitting, or twisting in a certain direction. Employees rubbing wrists is common where too many repeated wrist movements (radial/ulnar deviation) are occurring. Even employees who do not move hardly at all during the day may be fatigued by static posture issues. By simply listening to your employees, you can learn a lot about their everyday work environment from their perspective.

Ergonomic Angles

Angles play a key role in an ergonomic design. Ideally, all joints should be at a 90 degree angle. If, for instance, your wrist bends slightly up to type on the keyboard, over time you could develop a strain which is commonly referred to a carpal tunnel syndrome. By positioning your keyboard so your hands, wrists, and forearms are parallel, you will eliminate the strain and reduce long-term effects. Similarly, continuously looking down at a laptop monitor puts a strain on the neck. By raising the monitor to eye level, you will reduce the amount of strain and soreness felt at the end of the work day.

Ergonomic Zones

Workstation design not only pertains to the angles of the body, but to the positioning of tools. Most workspaces can be broken up into three main zones; primary reach areas, secondary reach areas, and tertiary reach areas.

Primary reach areas encompass items that are utilized on a constant basis. Ideally, these items should be placed within forearm’s reach. For example, the keyboard is a tool that is consistently utilized throughout the workday. It would be ridiculous to place the keyboard towards the back of the desk area out of reach. Ideally, the keyboard is right within range of the fingertips if the elbows are kept at a 90 degree angle. Most workspaces may also incorporate a mouse and a writing utensil in this area.

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The secondary reach area incorporates the zone that should be kept in arms reach of the body. This will include items that are utilized often during the workday but not consistently. Many workstations may place a phone, stapler, or notepad in this area. Also, sometimes a calculator may be found in this area. However, if the employee is an accountant or in an industry that relies heavily on the calculator, this might be moved into the primary area.

The tertiary reach area encompasses the area in which an employee may have to lean over and reach to access objects in that space. These things may include a local printer or fax, a three hole punch, tape, or light reference manuals. Heavier reference manuals may also be located in this area but the employee should never lean over to lift heavy items or they risk strains.

Why Ergonomics Are Important

Why should you incorporate ergonomics in your workplace? In many industries it is beginning to be a standard, such as in the nursing industry. Also, it may be state law, such as in California. But regardless of industry specific standards, it is your obligation as an employer to provide a safe working environment for your employee. Just like some chemical hazards or confined space hazards, ergonomic hazards can often appear to be invisible but the effects can be lasting. Every job position, even driving jobs, can benefit from ergonomics. (Learn more in "8 Important Ergonomic Aids for Drivers".)

Ergonomics Can Reduce Health Costs

A poorly designed workstation can lead to many costly injuries, such as strains, sprains, and work-related musculoskeletal injuries. A small cut, or penetration, usually requires quick medical care by applying a simple bandage and allowing a few days to heal. However, strains, sprains, and long term musculoskeletal abuse require long term medical care. (Learn more in "A Look at Lower Back Pain in the Workplace".) Often these types of injuries require several follow up appointments with a physician to determine that the injury has healed and that the employee has regained their full range of motion. However, depending on the severity of the sprain and strain, the injury can flair up later down the road due to the smallest of activities. An employer may be liable all medical expenses, temporary income benefits paid to the employee during time off, and potentially impairment income benefits for the employee’s loss of range of motion. All of these costs can ultimately negatively impact your bottom line.

Ergonomics Leads to Increased Production

Ergonomics also helps streamline the workplace which can lead to increased production. For example, if an employee's job is to move boxes from a cart on to a conveyor belt by lifting and twisting or lifting buckets using a power grip, the job can, over time, lead to various overuse injuries of the body, over reaching injury from reaching beyond the normal bending capability of joints (hyperflexion), and also decreases speed of work. (Learn more in "Physical Demands Analysis 101".) Using good ergonomic design in situations such as this to minimize lifting and twisting reduces injury risk and often increases both worker satisfaction and productivity. Even repeated tasks such as walking can lead to mechanical contact stress issues. A small time of task decrease adds up over the course of a workday and workweek to return significant production increases when coupled with less injury downtime and worker fatigue.

In an office environment, investing in an ergonomically designed computer workstation and chair will help the employee feel more comfortable because they have less strain on their joints. (Learn more in "10 Important Ergonomic Aids for Office Workers".) In stagnant job tasks, it is important for the employee to be as ergonomic as possible because their body is expected to hold those positions for long periods of time. This can lead to stiffness of joints and strains if improperly positioned. As a results, employees will stop work on a more frequent basis to stretch and walk around or adjust their body due to strain. But, if the work space is designed to fit the employee, their bodies will be able to endure the eight hours behind the computer without abusing necessary breaks and rest periods. (Learn more in "Breaks During Work are Necessary for Employee Well-Being and Work Performance".) There should also be a marked decrease in fatigue caused errors.

Ergonomics Can Increase Worker Loyalty

Happy employees are loyal employees. One of the biggest costs for employers is usually the cost of finding the right employee, the hiring process, and training. By improving the comfort of the workplace and job tasks, employers can increase the job satisfaction of their workforce and foster loyalty. This leads to decreased turnover and increased savings for the employer. Increased worker loyalty can also be a factor in reducing labor union disputes.