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The Benefits of Ergonomics in the Workplace

Wednesday, August 27, 2008
By Anne Kramer

Ergonomics may seem like a subjective solution to increasing productivity in the workplace, because its benefits often appear to elude quantification. While it is certainly easier to measure the effects of ergonomics in some work environments than others, paying attention to ergonomics in any workplace can save money by reducing injuries and time lost. Furthermore it can actually make a business more profitable, through increased productivity and efficiency, in addition to making the workplace accessible to a wider variety of workers.

Decreasing Injury and Time Lost

Every year, hundreds of thousands of work days are lost due to work-related injuries. The cost of these days missed easily totals in the billions. These injuries were certainly not limited to those caused by heavy lifting; they also included seemingly less-serious injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome. Thus the company that prevents these sorts of injuries stands to gain, through decreased pay-out for workers’ compensation and fewer days lost.

Myriad products are available to prevent these injuries, ranging from wrist rests to adjustable office chairs. Each piece of equipment should be designed for reducing injury and promoting ease of use. As a rule of thumb, optimum posture may be defined as the midpoint of any limb’s range of motion. For instance, a desktop computer workstation should allow the user to keep his or her elbows at a 90-degree angle. Wrists should remain in a neutral position; there should be no bend from forearm to wrist. Meanwhile, the top of the monitor should be parallel to the top of the head. Thus all components of the workstation must support a proper working position.

Although heavy lifting injuries are not the only ones resulting in time lost, they do comprise a large majority of those requiring missed days: on average, shoulder or back injuries comprise about a third of all injuries each year. These were caused by either overexertion or cumulative trauma. While the bulk of injuries occurred in workplaces where the jobs required heavy lifting, shoulder and back injuries also happen in the white-collar environment; these may occur due to any manner of static exertion: holding activities; carrying items; pushing or pulling; or raising the arms.

Regardless of the work environment, injuries due to lifting pose a threat, but an easily avoidable one. Heavy items should simply be placed where employees can use proper posture to pick them up. It is important to minimize bending while lifting, which forces the upper body to lift its own weight in addition to the weight of the item being lifted. Additionally, bending while lifting moves the load away from the body, thereby decreasing leverage. In this case, employee education can be an indispensable method of injury prevention.

Such education can play a significant role in employees’ continued health, because making ergonomically wise decisions about task design may often fall to the employee. An employee who knows the benefit of reducing head motion is more likely to utilize a stand, to keep papers at eye level and close to the monitor while completing typing or data-entry tasks. That same employee is more likely to move frequently used items, such as scissors or a stapler, within optimum reach of sixteen inches or less.

Increasing Productivity and Efficiency

Although the field of ergonomics is most frequently associated with gadgets and gizmos, it is really a science of fitting the job to the worker. Thus any measure that increases productivity or efficiency is really an ergonomically friendly one, even if it does not involve a specific piece of equipment. One of these may appear counter-intuitive, and even counter-productive: taking breaks. Several studies have demonstrated the efficacy of this simple intervention. Workers who take short breaks every twenty minutes significantly reduce the incidence of injury, at no detriment to productivity.

To maximize productivity, employees may combine their breaks with the sit/stand work station set-up. Although the original focus of the sit-stand work station was that employees would complete the same task, such as typing, while alternately sitting and standing, this procedure was not demonstrated to increase efficiency or reduce injury. Thus it is now recommended that employees still vary their posture regularly, which can be accomplished by standing to file papers or to make copies. Employees, then, may save these tasks for their breaks from computer-centered tasks.

This is not to say that proper equipment does not contribute to productivity levels. On the contrary, even something as simple as a keyboard can impact efficiency. After a learning period on an ergonomic keyboard, employees are even more productive on the ergonomic keyboard than the were on the standard keyboard: because ergonomic keyboards require less exertion than standard ones, employees can complete more computer-based tasks in the same amount of time.

Measuring Ergonomics-related Gains through Data Analysis

While it is certainly easier to evaluate the effects of ergonomics in work environments with production lines, where progress can be measured in higher tangible output, it is not impossible to measure the benefits of ergonomics in the white-collar environment. Any effort at redesign should begin with a job analysis and employee feedback. These items will help in the construction of evaluation criteria, along with dictating the sort of ergonomic interventions that are appropriate and necessary. Both criteria and interventions should be tailored to the position. If employees spend little time on the computer each day, but often use the telephone, then greater impact would be attained through purchasing headsets than wrist rests. Anthropometry must also be taken into account; because people vary in size, a one-size-fits-all approach will often be ineffectual. While an adjustable chair is a critical part of a computer workstation, shorter employees will often also need a foot rest to maintain proper posture.

Once ergonomic equipment and procedures have been implemented, monitoring and measurement can begin. Invariably a comparison of the baseline data to the new data will reveal clear monetary gains.

Ergonomics as a Method of Supporting and Encouraging Diversity

Perhaps the greatest benefit of ergonomics in the work place is that the work station can be customized to the worker, thereby making the office better able to accommodate a wide variety of workers. By eschewing the one-size-fits-all approach to work station design, employers can ensure that office spaces are modified to fit people in all age groups; although two employees may be the same height and build, their age also influences how they use tools. Meanwhile, the ergonomic office space also provides greater accessibility for employees with physical limitations. These might include a variety of conditions, which could range from pregnancy to quadriplegia. The benefit of such an approach, then, is three-fold. First, the employer has satisfied the legal requirement of providing adequate and appropriate accommodations for employees. Additionally research has consistently demonstrated that the implementation of ergonomics conveys that the employer values and embraces workers of diverse needs, thereby boosting workplace morale. Finally, adaptations originally intended for physically handicapped employees, such as voice-recognition software, can actually benefit any employee, because it reduces the need for a keyboard. Thus as new technology is added, it can be integrated into the whole-office ergonomic approach, to the advantage of all employees.

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