Creating and designing an ergonomic workplace with ergonomic workstations isn’t just a passing fad. Here’s why.
You’ve known plenty of dedicated employees who struggle with maladies such as carpal tunnel syndrome, back strain, or spend hours squinting at the computer screen. In the break room or in social settings, how many times have you heard co-workers or friends moan and say they’re getting older?
What do you think?
Do you know the impact that the right desk, chair and lighting can have on office well-being and productivity?
Find out how ergonomics came about so you get a good understanding of not just how to create ergonomic workstations but why it’s important.
What is Ergonomics
Ergonomics is the study of how employees interact with their work surroundings. The purpose is creating an environment to meet the needs of workers instead of making employees fit into the work setting.
Can you identify with this familiar situation?
A person types away hours every day on a keyboard and strains the wrist. Who hasn’t heard of carpal tunnel syndrome? The employee has to take time off to get treatments or can’t work as productively.
Keyboards, chairs and desks are now designed to support good posture instead of making workers potentially suffer more problems. The equipment is designed to help people do their tasks well and reduce the risk of injuries.
Ergonomics, also known as human factors, creates efficiencies while minimizing problems that come from doing repetitive tasks. The discipline is appropriate for both white collar workstations and factory floors.
How Ergonomics Came About
An Italian physician in the late 1600s noticed how metal mining workers suffered poor health. Respiratory illnesses were prevalent but also their bodies were affected by awkward working positions.
They forced their bodies to meet the demands of the working environment and paid a price in poor health.
Skip ahead to 1857 when a Polish biologist is credited for creating the word ergonomics based on the Greek words ergon (work) and nomos (natural laws).
Now head into the late 20th century and into Southern California where local universities like UCLA started to improve working conditions through ergonomics. Since 1987, UCLA’s Labor Occupational Safety and Health Program has “trained thousands of workers and supervisors in office ergonomics.”
A company of any size can design a work environment to adapt to the needs of its people. Let’s see how this is done by looking at something as simple as the office chair.
What Ergonomic Stations Reduce or Prevent
In the late 1800s, the growth of railroads in the U.S. made it possible for businesses to reach customers across the country. A heavy emphasis was placed on office administration to track orders.
Bookkeepers, secretaries and other support staff needed something to sit on. Wooden office chairs were a one-size fits all solution. End of story.
The chairs were sturdy and you didn’t have to worry about them breaking or falling apart. They were completely stationary. If you had to bend and take paper from a desk drawer your hips and back had to pivot since the chair was built to stay in one place.
If your hips or lower back got sore, then you’d take anti-inflammatories to temporarily reduce the pain.
Along came executive chairs that looked fancier and had wheels. Now you could glide to the nearby filing cabinet or to the phone. By the 1970s, more executive chairs were designed to support a person’s body.
Executive office chairs were more comfortable, but they still didn’t address two underlying maladies facing the modern office worker:
- Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSDs)
- Repetitive Strain Injuries
This is more than just bad backs. MSDs affect nerves, ligaments, blood vessels and tendons as noted on a write-up of ergonomics on the OSHA website.
When a person does the same work constantly at a desk or chair that’s at an improper height and they have poor posture, they’re at risk for repetitive strain injuries. MSDs lead to frequent absences from work.
Employee absenteeism became widespread and serious studies evolved on how workers interacted with the workplace. That’s the focus of ergonomics.
Flip the calendar back to the early 1900s and you’ll find in-depth work appearing on ergonomics. The growth and use of aviation in the world wars that followed made the U.S. military see how they could make crew members better able to handle their duties. Engineers studied the intersection of airplane design and the limitations of the human body.
Now, back to the office.
Here’s where this extensive research has taken us—to high quality solutions that are readily available.
You work in an office every day but can you name the basics element of a workstation?
If not, no problem. It’s listed below.
Principles of Ergonomic Workstations
What makes up a workstation?
Photo: Humanscale M10 Monitor Arm
Do those last two items surprise you? They shouldn’t.
Learn why as you read along.
When setting up an ergonomics workstation, pay attention to the space design of the room, a key part of the 2010 Space Planning Strategy.
Also look at the placement of accessories and the equipment layout on the desk as noted in a detailed write up on computer workstation ergonomics by The University of Western Australia. A person’s joints shouldn’t be stressed while sitting and working.
Here’s a summary of how an ergonomic workstation keeps a person in a neutral position:
Be seated so you’re eye level with the top of the computer screen.
Use a wrist pad when not typing to rest your wrists at a neutral position. Wrist pads aren’t meant to be used while typing.
Adjust armrests so elbows are close to the side of the body and are bent at a 90 degree to 100-degree angle.
Adjust the chair so feet are sitting either comfortably flat on the floor or on a footrest.
Be aware of good posture. An article and infographic from the province of Alberta, Canada notes that your ears should be above the shoulders. Those should be over the hips. This position reduces back strain. Use a lumbar pillow or roll against the lower back for extra support.
Now, let’s look at individual items.
Here’s a tip for working comfortably at a desk. Make sure the surface has everything within easy reach so you don’t have to turn and twist unnecessarily.
How does your desk adjust to your body so you can be more productive and reduce the risk of injuries? Height adjustable desks are an ergonomic solution in many offices.
Desks that support good health can be used in private offices and serve the needs of one person or they can be used in a pod of four people or more. Each person can adjust the desk to suit their preferences so they can work using the best posture possible.
If you’re wondering what to look for in the best ergonomic desks then consider this: make sure the desk changes heights quietly and is easy to reset.
How heavy will the items be on the surface? You don’t want equipment that creates instability.
Height adjustable desks fit well in compact spaces, executive suites and open plan offices.
The equipment does more than provide a place to work. Desks that adapt promote office wellness. A 12-month workplace study from the Ichan School of Medicine at Mount Sinai found that height adjustable desks are linked to increased productivity, better concentration and improved health overall.
Photo: Humanscale QuickStand
Office aesthetics are important, and today’s desks fit traditional office spaces and the latest floor plans.
A private office desk like the Krug Adesso Height Adjustable Desk has a finely crafted appearance while the Hon 10500 Series Height Adjustable Desk is minimal for a compact work place and collaborative open floor plans.
Desks are a good way to improve ergonomics, but now let’s look at chairs.
Sitting for a long period of time simply isn’t a natural position for the body. That’s why it’s important to move. Stretching every 20 minutes to a half hour and take a quick walking break every 90 minutes to two hours.
Moving gives your muscles and tendons a chance to reset.
Make sitting easier and less harmful to your body by using an ergonomic chair that supports a body’s natural movement.
Think of it this way.
You’re not sitting still on a chair. You’re reaching for files, turning to look or listen to a co-worker, and, yes, sitting with good posture, we hope, while typing up your latest report.
Remember that ergonomics is meant to keep the body in a neutral position, meaning little to no strains on the joints and lower back.
If you’re looking for the best ergonomic chair, then you need a chair that has a comfortable tilt to it with good lumbar support. Make sure your knees are bent at about 90 degrees. Use a footrest if your feet don’t touch the floor.
Choosing a chair that works is subjective since no two bodies are the same. Evaluate the material, the durability, and overall comfort. Make sure the chair provides support so you’re not hunched over or leaning forward excessively.
Ergonomic Computer Accessories
Posture has a tremendous impact on overall well-being. Your head weighs as much as 12-pound to 14-pound bowling ball so you don’t want to learn forward to squint at the computer screen.
The more your head tilts forward, the more you’ll strain your muscles at the base of your neck and along your shoulders.
Keep computer screens at an eye level so you don’t have to lean forward to read the screen. Accessories like a keyboard and mouse should let the arms remain horizontal. Be careful that your wrists aren’t bent or extended upright.
Office lighting also affects your work and posture.
Light does more than just let you see what you’re doing. Controlling the proper amount of light flowing from windows and lights is part of an ergonomic office design.
The right amount of light in an office boosts your employees’ morale. Natural light is a proven mood booster that promotes a restful night’s sleep as well.
There are three basic types of lighting:
- Local, also called task lighting
General lighting covers a large area such as ceiling lamps that cover a wide area.
Localized-general lights include ceiling lamps that can direct light to specific areas.
Task lighting is much more focused and lets specific users adjust light levels. Desk lamps are a good example of task lighting.
Good lighting tips include arranging light fixtures so they’re not creating glare on computer screens, but providing enough focused light so users don’t have to squint.
Light “enhances the mood and desirability” of work spaces and public places as noted by the International Association of Lighting Designers.
Now consider the various elements of an ergonomically sound workplace? Can you understand what it ultimately delivers?
The Ergonomic Workstation Solution
Sitting comfortably with good posture, being able to handle repetitive tasks with little discomfort and working with proper light are all elements of an ergonomic workstation, and healthy work environment.
How we feel physically also impacts our thinking and our emotions. Investments in the right equipment are investments in people and their health.
Make this a team effort. One person in the office doesn’t have to decide how to carry out improvements and changes. Employees typically want their voices heard.
A successful ergonomics program involves employees in worksite assessments, solution development and implementation.
Here’s the end result of an office that’s planned well.
Expect a reduction in absenteeism from ailments like carpal tunnel syndrome, aching shoulders and bad backs. Employees will be more engaged and alert with proper workstations and a supportive environment.
Give your team the opportunity to function at their optimal levels.
Photo: Friant System 2 Workstations
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Our team has more than 45 years of experience serving corporations, universities and small businesses throughout Los Angeles, Orange County and the Inland Empire.
Read Also: Designing an Office Layout for Maximum Productivity
Main Photo by: ODS / Office Design Studio
Resources & Special Thanks to: OSHA, University of Western Australia, UCLA, MyHealth.Alberta.Ca, IALD, & Respective Product Manufacturers: ODS / Office Design Studio, 9 to 5 Seating, Friant, HON, and Humanscale