You may have heard of ergonomic assessments around the workplace, and are interested in understanding how it can help you prevent injury and improve productivity. There is a lot to unpack, so let's first start with the basics.
What is Ergonomics?
Ergonomics is the study of peoples’ physical efficiency in their environment. It takes into account the individual's physical and psychological characteristics to optimize performance, comfort and safety. In other words, ergonomics is all about fitting the job to the person and not the other way around.
Nearly every office worker can relate to having a sore back from remaining stationary all day, or wrist pain from typing and using a mouse. These are common symptoms of repetitive movements and poor office ergonomics. So what do good office ergonomics look like and why are they important?
Ergonomics is all about reducing risk in our environment and hence improving safety. We spend so much of our time at work, and so there are some major benefits to being safe while we're there. For example, office ergonomics is the study of how people interact with their office environment and how to optimize that interaction to minimize strain on the body.
What is an Ergonomic Assessment?
In an office environment, ergonomics is the design of equipment that we use regularly, like desks, chairs and monitors to reduce our risk from repetitive use. An ergonomic assessment is how we design and implement simple changes to your office setup which can dramatically reduce your risk of developing musculoskeletal injuries and disorders (MSKs) such as carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, and back pain.
Who is an Ergonomic Assessment For?
An ergonomic assessment is for anyone that wants to reduce their risk of injury and improve their work environment. An ergonomic assessment is a great option for office workers because it will improve productivity and work satisfaction. Lawyers, engineers, programmers, brokers, sales teams and creative workers are just an example of who can benefit from an ergonomic assessment.
Ergonomic assessments are not limited to office workers, all workers can benefit. For example cleaners, electricians and drivers can also benefit from industry- specific ergonomic assessments to improve their work environment. By assessing your environment you can create a safer and more comfortable workplace.
What are the benefits of proper ergonomics?
There are many benefits of ergonomics, both for employees and employers. Good ergonomics can:
- Improve worker comfort
- Reduce the risk of musculoskeletal disorders
- Increase productivity
- Decrease absenteeism
- Improve morale
Human Factors and ergonomics
Ergonomics originated as a concept called Human Factors. Human Factors is defined as “the application of scientific information concerning humans to the design of objects, systems, and environment for human use.” In other words, human factors is the study of how people interact with their environment and how to optimize that interaction.
The term ergonomics was coined in 1950 by W.G. Redmond who defined it as “the science of work and working conditions.” Ergonomics is a branch of human factors that specifically deals with the design of equipment and workplaces to optimize worker comfort and safety.
While ergonomics was originally designed for manufacturing and assembly line workers, the principles of ergonomics can be applied to any type of work, including office work. As more and more companies move to open concept offices and workers spend hours at computers, the importance of office ergonomics has increased.
Ergonomics vs. Behavior-based safety
At the most pragmatic level, ergonomics is a safety technique. The field of ergonomics is about designing our environment to reduce risk. But why should we choose to design our space to meet our safety needs when we can just remember to behave safely and achieve the same goals?
The simple answer is that design-based solutions are much more effective than behavior-based solutions. By their very nature, ergonomic solutions are proactive, while behavior-based solutions are reactive.
For example, let’s say you have an employee who constantly slouches in their chair and develops back pain as a result. A behavior-based solution to this problem would be to remind the employee to sit up straight. This is a reactive solution that does not address the underlying cause of the problem, which might be an uncomfortable chair design.
That is not to say we should forget behavior-based safety, as behavior change is also very important to an ergonomic assessment. An ergonomics assessment always includes education for the employee.
The employee may learn about the importance of getting up during the day and how to best position their body to reduce pain and stiffness at the end of the day. For example with a standing desk, we have to remember to adjust from sitting to standing multiple times a day to get a benefit from using it.
Why is ergonomics important in the office
About half of all workers work in an office, and there are so many reasons to prioritize an ergonomic work environment for such an important type of job. Employees that work in an ergonomic environment reduce their risk factors of MSK's and pain. A well-designed ergonomic space can also lead to increased productivity, higher morale, and less absenteeism. Employers who prioritize ergonomics often see a reduction in workers' compensation costs as well.
Office ergonomics is so important because it can help reduce the risk of musculoskeletal injuries and disorders (MSKs). Names we associate often with MSKs in the office are repetitive strain injuries (RSIs), repetitive motion injuries, cumulative trauma disorders (CTDs). Conditions include (but are not limited to) carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, back pain, muscle tendon strain, ligament sprain, degenerative disk disease and more. Pain is the common symptom for most of these conditions.
Ergonomics assessment benefits to office workers
Office employees in pain are less productive, suffer from low morale and are absent more often. Good office ergonomics solves these problems, reducing pain and hence leading to increased productivity and morale. Employees who have an ergonomic workstation are often more comfortable and less likely to experience fatigue. This in turn leads to increased focus and concentration.
Focused and pain free workers enjoy coming to work more. Their teams are stronger and their culture is more cohesive. These results have far reaching benefits to the human resources that businesses rely upon to stay competitive and thrive.
Ergonomic assessments in all work environments
Ergonomic assessments benefit all types of workers and jobs such as manufacturing, cleaning, driving, construction and more. Injuries in jobs that require lifting, maneuvering and other types of manual labor are preventable with proper ergonomics.
An ergonomics assessment is essential for workers to learn techniques to prevent injury. For example for jobs that require lifting, workers should bend at the knees and keep a wide base of support with the feet apart. When lifting an object, the back is straight with the core engaged.
Simple techniques like this will help workers prevent pain, be more productive and improve career satisfaction.
How much does an ergonomic assessment cost?
The cost of an ergonomic assessment will vary depending on the size and complexity of the workplace, as well as the number of employees. A simple assessment for a small office can start at around $300, while a more comprehensive assessment for multiple workers could cost several thousand dollars. The scalability of this service makes it suitable for any workspace.
Ergonomic Equipment Recommendations
An ergonomic assessment will include workstation optimization and education as well as equipment recommendations. Added equipment can add significant cost, for example a new office chair for an employee who doesn't fit well in your office's available chairs may cost more than $1000. Make sure to budget for these equipment upgrades when considering an ergonomic assessment.
Types of ergonomic assessment
There are two main types of ergonomic assessment: the individual/comprehensive ergonomic assessment and the multi-workstation ergonomic assessment. The individual ergonomic assessment is conducted with a single employee to address their pain, behavior, equipment and posture issues to determine their risk of developing an MSK injury. This type of assessment looks at factors such as posture, workstation design, work habits and overall health.
The multiple workstation (multi-station) ergonomic assessment is conducted on a group of employees to evaluate and reduce the risk factors of developing a work-related MSK injury in the workplace. This type of assessment looks at factors such as workstation design, workstation layout lighting and ventilation, and is perfect for large offices. Newly renovated offices, new offices and offices with new equipment for all staff are perfect candidates for a multi-workstation assessment.
Ergonomic assessments for non-office workers
Outside the office, ergonomics assessment can improve health and safety in any work environment. Specific ergonomics assessments exist for workers doing repetitive tasks, experiencing vibration or who handle and manipulate material. These assessments rely on risk assessment tools that have been developed for each type of job task.
What are the components of an ergonomic assessment in the office?
There are three main components of an ergonomic office: equipment, behavior and environment. An assessment will guide workers through their most common tasks and look critically at the equipment they use.
Ergonomic office equipment
Ergonomic office chair
Most office employees spend a lot of their day sitting down as you’d expect. In the U.S., the typical person sits for over half of the day. For many office workers, they remain seated for 15 hours a day when we include commuting and activities at home. Office ergonomics for these employees should foster a neutral sitting position with no angles that cause stress on the body.
Despite being a popular trend, don’t settle with exercise or stability balls as a substitute for a good quality office chair. Modern studies suggest that increased muscle activation in the spine and abnormal pelvic tilt while sitting on an exercise ball for long durations decreases comfort, increases fatigue and promotes poor office ergonomics.
Ergonomic Keyboard, Mouse & Key Objects
Having your keyboard and mouse within easy reach is an office ergonomics staple. Keep both instruments on the same surface, and make sure these tools are the right fit for your hands. A larger mouse or a curved keyboard will help reduce fatigue when used for long periods of time.
Other useful office tools which are used frequently for work should be within comfortable reach so the worker does not break their neutral resting position for optimal office ergonomics. Common useful office tool examples are a phone, printer, stapler, a notebook, a telephone, or any other work material used throughout the day.
Desk in Ergonomic Assessment
Desk design plays an important role in office ergonomics. If the desk is poorly designed for ergonomics it can be painful as employees will sit in strained positions for hours. Ensure the desk has legroom and adequate height so knees can be comfortably under it with feet flat on the floor. A standing desk is a great option because it builds movement into your daily tasks.
Monitor position is important for working on computers. The monitor should be about an arm’s length away. If your monitor has a tilt feature, make sure to use it and tilt the monitor back slightly. The top of the screen should be eye level or slightly below. If the height cannot be adjusted, try stacking books or using a monitor stand to raise it to the appropriate level.
For workers using laptops, a dedicated laptop stand or a small stack of sturdy textbooks can reach the optimal height.
Other office ergonomic tools
Some commonplace ergonomic office add-ons include wrist pads, footrests, anti-glare glasses and ball mice. An ergonomic assessment will identify which are useful and which are optional for workers.
Behavior and the Office Environment
Office tools which are used infrequently are better positioned at a large distance from the worker. Putting them a larger distance can also be helpful because standing and walking over to use them rather than reaching while sitting will reduce strain if the key object is far away.
Drinking lots of water is about more than just hydration, it also helps prevent injuries. Drinking water in the office means getting up to get water, and getting up to use the washroom, both of which involve movement. Regular movement prevents pain and injuries. Drinking plenty of water at the office will ensure that you are moving throughout your day which has real health benefits including reduction in MSK's and pain.
Walking to use some office equipment and remembering to drink lots of water are examples of behavior-based changes to reach the same goal of better safety in the office.
The Role of Ambiance in Office Ergonomics
Workspace ambience is the most flexible aspect of office ergonomics. Consider a few of the five human senses: sight, touch, smell, taste, and hearing. In an office, this can translate to the lighting, ambient sounds or music, office textures, and air circulation. This is a very subjective aspect for employees. For example, heavier music with lyrics might distract certain employees that prefer soft, instrumental music to be productive.
Who Performs an Ergonomic Assessment
Ergonomist is a broad term for anyone with the ability to perform an ergonomic assessment. Kinesiologists, occupational therapists and physiotherapists are the most common health professionals who can conduct an ergonomic assessment. This profession is not regulated so experience and expertise are all that are required to join the profession.
What is the Outcome of an Ergonomic Assessment?
Deliverables for an ergonomic assessment are typically a report which includes recommendations to improve your workstation, or each workstation that is part of the assessment. The report will identify factors which could lead to discomfort or work related injury. The report should also include solutions to mitigate the identified risk factors.
The ergonomic assessor should also be able to provide guidance on how to implement the recommendations and a follow up visit if necessary. This may include where to purchase recommended products, how to adjust your workstation, stretching exercises would be beneficial and more education on behaviors that will improve worker health.
An ergonomic assessment is about reducing risk factors and improving safety by fitting our environment to us. By conducting an ergonomic assessment, you will learn about how to move efficiently in your day and make healthy choices throughout the day. You will also have the opportunity to make changes to improve your comfort and reduce strain on your body. Ergonomic assessments are not just for people with injuries, they are for anyone who wants to optimize their workstation for comfort and safety.