Ergonomics don't have to be a pain

Lost time, poor employee efficiency far more costly than a new workstation

Is your workstation ergonomically correct? If not, back and neck pain and carpal-tunnel syndrome are all possible outcomes if the problem goes uncorrected.


Heidi Schiller
   Every time Kelly Flaherty’s fellow office mates moved on to different positions at Washington State University, she collected their ergonomic office equipment for herself — an attempt to alleviate the increasing amount of pain she felt in her shoulders and wrists. She called it working her way up the “furniture ladder.”
   Flaherty first began to experience shoulder pain in a clerical accounting position at Washington State University where she spent long hours on the phone — the kind with a handset, not a headset — answering students’ account questions.
   “At that point I’d go home and cry I was in so much pain,” she said.
   Flaherty said she experienced the sharp shoulder pain every day for a year and finally switched jobs for the sole purpose of gaining a better, more ergonomic work station.
   At a later position at the university, Flaherty’s work station, which included a hard-edged desk and a high keyboard, began giving her carpal-tunnel pain in her wrists. She said her work performance was greatly affected.
   “You just can’t work as fast if you’re in pain,” she said. “It was discouraging because I didn’t know what to do.”
   Throughout her physical struggles Flaherty said her supervisors were resistant to provide better equipment because of the cost. Eventually, she said, she spent $600 out of her own money to buy an ergonomic chair.
   Flaherty’s experience with office-related injury is not uncommon. Between 1995 and 2003, the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries processed an average of 1,300 compensative claims a year for ergonomic injuries in Whatcom County, according to department spokesman Robert Nelson. A compensative claim means the employee missed work and received wage-replacement benefits, Nelson said.
   Business owners should be concerned with their office’s safety because workers’ compensation premiums are based on each employer’s safety record, he said.
   Flaherty filed a claim for her carpal-tunnel symptoms and almost needed surgery, but instead received a newer ergonomic work station and practiced tips from her physical therapist, which almost completely rid her of the pain.

John McWilliams, a physical therapist at Bellingham Physical Therapy in Sehome Village, said many of the most common office-related injuries he treats are easily avoided by proper posture and ergonomically correct workstations.

    John McWilliams, a physical therapist at Bellingham Physical Therapy in Sehome Village, said shoulder and wrist pain are some of the most common office-related injuries he treats.
   Most ergonomic injuries are caused by incorrect posture or incorrect equipment use, as well as workers’ bodies tensing up as a reaction to stress.
   For example, the “infamous shoulder knot” is often caused by cramping the neck to one side in order to talk on a handset phone, and can be adjusted by using a headset instead, which helps keep the neck straight.
    Shoulder pain can also be caused by holding an arm at the incorrect height to type or use a mouse, he said. A general rule of thumb for correct body posture at a workstation is to hold all limbs at 90-degree angles, he said.
    Carpal-tunnel injuries, which include symptoms such as numbness or tingling in the hands, usually are a result of shoulder tightness, he said. This, too, can be alleviated with 90-degree posture at the workstation.
    Lower-back pain is also a common complaint, McWilliams said.
   “It can be caused from anything,” he said with a sigh. “Pick something.”
   If the body’s musculature is weak, it won’t support the lower back enough and will cause injury, he said. Also, workers need to be sure to move around every so often to prevent lower back pain.
   “(Workers) sometimes have a moral or psychological voice that tells them to sit there and work,” he said.
   It’s important, however, to get up, move around and stretch at work.
   Another injury McWilliams frequently sees is a headache caused by poor posture and poor seating, which creates tension in the neck. Over time, this causes micro-trauma by whittling away the neck’s elasticity, which results in pain and headaches, he said.
    Sometimes sitting in a seat too long can cause hamstring, or leg pain, he said. This occurs over a long period of time, usually years, as the chair indents and deforms the tissue of the back of the leg, above the back of the knee, he said.
   Many of these problems can be avoided, McWilliams said, if employers and employees make a conscious effort to improve an office’s ergonomic environment.

Here are a few of his and Nelson’s suggestions:

For employers:
    •Make sure employees have adjustable seats that fit the comfort level of each employee, taking into account their height and body type.
    •Have work- stations — including desks and computers — that allow employees’ limbs to operate at 90-degree angles. Providing ergonomic keyboards and wrist supports to employees who need them will reduce injuries.
    •Provide proper lighting. Some fluorescent light cycles can irritate employees’ eyes and can then cause their bodies to tense.
    •Allow each employee enough space to call their own. If employees feel cramped or intruded upon, they can feel stress, which causes the body to tense.

For employees:
    •Place the keyboard and mouse together on an adjustable platform. This allows for a more comfortable position of those devices closer to the body, which reduces stress on the elbow and shoulder.
    •Place the top of the computer monitor at or below eye level.
    •“Employees need to take responsibility and listen to their body,” McWilliams said. “Don’t just complain.” Employees should make sure they are getting the proper equipment they need to do their job.
    •“Recognize that work is everyday athletics,” he said. Employees need to have at least a minimum amount of strength, flexibility and aerobic endurance to perform their basic office duties without getting out of breath. The better shape you are in, the better you can tolerate stress and the sooner you’ll be able to recognize a potential injury and address it.
    •Wear comfortable clothing. Make sure clothes aren’t too tight and that you can move well in them.
    •If your injury is going to go away on its own, without your having to address it, it will do so in a week. Otherwise, make ergonomic adjustments to your workstation or see a doctor or physical therapist.
   Flaherty luckily did not have to have surgery for any of her ergonomic injuries. She does, however, have to go through the same rigamarole of gathering and convincing employers to provide ergonomic equipment to use every time she starts a new job. In her new position at Western Washington University residence’s business office, she’s felt supported in her need for an ergonomic workstation.
   She said if there’s one thing employers should know, it’s that one size doesn’t fit all. Everyone has different needs for their body.



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