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Ergonomic Responses to Workplace Population Trends

Thursday, January 21, 2010
By Anne Kramer

Since the 1950’s workplace demographics have consistently shifted. The workforce includes an increasingly diverse population. In the last decade, the number of employees who are aging, pregnant, or disabled has grown. Employers can facilitate and support this diverse workforce through ergonomics.

An Aging Population

The Baby Boomers have long comprised a significant portion of the workforce, and many will work past the average age of retirement due to the recent economic downturn. Although many employers presume that the cost of accommodating aging employees’ needs would exceed the benefits received, making the office safe for older employees makes the workplace healthier people of all ages:

  • Lifting and carrying heavy items often leads to lower back injuries. Loads that weigh more than two pounds should be either broken into separate packages whenever possible, and transported with a cart.
  • On the desktop, frequently used items should be kept close at hand. Reaching beyond 18 inches can place undue stress on the neck and shoulders, so tools like staplers and desk carousels need to be located well within that distance.
  • Back pain can result from arthritis and spinal stenosis. Proper lumbar support minimizes that pain and promotes proper posture by supporting the spine’s natural position.

More Pregnant Workers

The number of women entering and staying in the workforce has consistently increased. Many women now choose to stay at work until late in their pregnancies. Because pregnancy adds stress to the back, legs, and feet and drastically changes the body’s shape, it presents a specific ergonomic challenge.

  • Adjustable work surfaces accommodate all body sizes and make it easier for pregnant women to use desks and tables.
  • Pregnancy increases fluid flow in the joints, putting pregnant women at greater risk for joint injuries, particularly in the wrists and fingers. Wrist rests and mousing alternatives like trackballs or foot switches reduce this risk.
  • Swiveling ergonomic office chairs with adjustable cushions and armrests protect the back from twisting and support proper spinal alignment.

Workers with Disabilities

The variety of specializations and industries has opened up many opportunities for individuals who were once excluded from the workplace. Now it is easier than ever to make the workplace friendly for people with physical limitations, from vision or hearing loss to limitations in manual dexterity.

  • For employees with severe arthritis or other conditions that limit use of their hands, ergonomic tools with oversized grips are easier to grip, squeeze, and operate.
  • Large-print keyboards, anti-glare filters, and electronic magnifiers assist workers who have visual impairment due to cataracts, macular degeneration, or other related conditions. Document holders keep items closer, helping prevent damage before it begins.
  • To assist employees who may have hearing loss, workstations should be designed to decrease noise pollution. Padded cubicle walls can significantly muffle noises.

Trends in workplace demographics offer employers an excellent opportunity to create an office place that promotes the health and productivity of all employees. Ergonomic awareness is key to building a safe and productive work environment.

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