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Office Safety – Ergonomics

by Dr. Isabel Perry, “The Safety Doctor”

(1139 words)

The word “ergonomics” has become a buzzword over the last decade. What does it really mean?  “Ergonomics” is a fancy term for the science of workplace safety.  Traditionally, when you moved into a new office you received a desk, chair and office equipment, and you had to fit into them.  However, improper positioning while performing repeated procedures such as typing and using the telephone causes physical injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome caused by strain on wrist muscles and tendons, pinched nerves and muscle spasms.  Ergonomics is the science of adjusting equipment to fit you, so that you aren’t straining any muscles, joints or nerves. This makes it easier and safer to do your work. Manufacturers now market ergonomic chairs, desks, wrist rests, keyboards and lighting.  It is wonderful equipment, but if you really want to benefit from it, you must use it correctly.  Let’s create the safest environment we can.

 

If it hurts, stop doing it!  As soon as you notice that there is some discomfort in anything you are doing, stop for a moment and look at how you are sitting, moving, and at what hurts.  Look for another way to do your task.  Examine the equipment you are using.  If it has been marketed as ergonomic, it is probably adjustable.  Learn how to adjust it to better fit you. 

 

Here are some adjustments that will make you more comfortable, more productive and healthier! 

 

For your back:

¨      Your chair should be lined up straight with the desk or table area on which you are working.  Do not sit at an angle.  It requires twisting the back or head and neck, which will throw your body out of alignment and causes strain.

¨      Sit up straight. It is very tempting to bend over or slouch, but you will tire more quickly.

¨      Avoid twisting around to get things.  Let the chair do that for you.

¨      Avoid placing items you use frequently above your head or behind your back.  Try to organize your space so that these are readily available or put them out of reach so you have to get up to get them.

 

For your shoulders, arms and forearms:

¨      Shoulders should be relaxed.  Avoid pulling your shoulders up.  Try rolling them in a circle. Begin moving them forward then around and up and back down towards the back.  It will position them correctly and it is a good exercise to do when you get tired.

¨      Arms should hang straight down from your shoulders.

¨      Keep your elbows close to the body – avoid lifting them above chest height.

¨      Forearms can be in a variety of positions comfortably depending on what you are doing:

o       For handwork like typing and light assembly, your forearms should be at a 900 angle to your upper arms.

o       For work involving close inspection or viewing like threading a needle, bend the forearms to bring work into closer view, instead of leaning forward.

o       For work requiring the use of force, like packing or pushing, the arms should be almost in a straight line.

 

For your head, neck and eyes:

¨      Face your work head-on; don’t sit sideways or work with your head twisted to the side.  If you spend a lot of time at a computer, get a stand that will hold your paperwork up next to the screen.  It will keep you from constantly having to turn your neck back and forth as you look from the screen to the paper.

¨      Don’t stick your neck out (forward) – it weighs about 15 pounds.

¨      Don’t stick you head back – most of the time you should be looking straight ahead or slightly down.  If you have a computer screen that sits low on a desk surface, put something under it to raise it to the right height.

¨      Don’t hold the telephone between your shoulder and cheek.  Either hold it with your hand or use a headset, which will free you to talk on the phone and write comfortably at the same time.  

¨      Avoid eyestrain - keep your workplace evenly lit.  There should be overhead lighting as well as task-specific lighting on the desk or work surface.  Never work in the dark on a computer or at a task with only one light over the work surface.  Never put your computer in front of a window.  Adjusting to the differences in light levels between your computer screen and the area around you will cause significant eyestrain.

 

For your hands and wrist:

¨      Keep your wrists straight. The normal position for a handshake is a straight wrist position.  It’s all right to rotate your hand, but avoid bending your wrist.

¨      When working on the computer, don’t let your wrists drop.  Keep your hands floating above the keyboard.

¨      Don’t prop your hands on wrists rests or other supports.

¨      Don’t reach for your mouse; place it in a comfortable position so your arm and forearm stay at about a 900 angle.

 

For your hips, legs, knees and feet:

¨      Hips should be fully supported by the chair seat.

¨      Knees should be at the same height or slightly higher than your hips when you’re seated.  A footrest will help raise the knees into a comfortable position.

¨      The edge of the chair should not cut into the back of your knees.

¨      Feet should be flat on the floor or other support.  Do not sit with your knees crossed.  It will throw your back out of alignment and cause significant strain.

¨      Wearing very high heels while seated may cause ankle and leg strain.

 

For standing work:

If your work involves standing for long periods, in addition to the other tips do the following:

¨      Wear comfortable footwear

¨      Consider using fatigue mats

¨      If work involves standing in one spot, try using a “bar rail” support.  If you prop a foot up while standing, it eases a lot of the stress on your lower back.

 

For heavy loads:

¨      Carts are essential if you must carry heavy loads.

¨      Use the elevator instead of the stairs when carrying heavy objects.

¨      Automatic staplers and postage machines may also be used to reduce wrist and hand strain.

 

Break up your day:

¨      Break up long tasks into smaller time segments.

o       Example: Don’t save all your filing till the end of the day and spend 3-4 hours standing.

¨      Vary the work during the day

o       Move from seated to standing work or from work requiring lots of hand motion to work requiring little hand motion.

 

Last but just as important – let people know if there is a problem or potential problem.  Your company can’t help make the workplace a safer place to work if you don’t let them know what your needs are.  Report it!

 

Dr. Isabel Perry is an internationally-known safety expert, motivational speaker, author and safety educator.  Based in Orlando, Florida, she can be reached at 407-291-1209 or via e-mail at [email protected]