The Importance of Ergonomics

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Ergonomics is the process of designing or arranging workplaces, products and systems with users’ capabilities, limitations, and requirements in mind.  A major factor in injury prevention and worker longevity, engaging in good ergonomic practices is in a company’s best interest.  Worker productivity will be increased and the injury rate will be greatly reduced.  In one study, employee complaints of computer-related injuries declined by 40 percent in less than a year due to the installation of ergonomic office equipment.

The use of good ergonomics also affects life outside the office.  General health, efficiency in accomplishing tasks, and safety are all improved by using better practices.  Ergonomic design has been applied to movie theaters, public transportation, and automobiles.  Sports equipment, kitchen and garden tools feature soft grips that accommodate the natural curve of the user’s hand.  Other examples can be seen worldwide.

Some of the more common applications of the science of ergonomics are addressed here:

Work and home office computer stations

A convenient tool illustrating optimal computer workstation setup can be found here.

Desks

For someone who is between 5 feet, 8 inches and 5 feet, 10 inches tall, the standard desk height is between 28 and 30 inches.  Anyone taller or shorter will benefit by having an adjustable desk.  If the desk is too high, for example, the worker will be required to reach up and forward.  After a few months, s/he will be inviting serious injury.  The same is true if the desk is too low for a taller worker.  In that case, the worker’s head, shoulders and back will be slumped forward.  With the head out of balance, its 10 or 11 pounds in weight will quickly cause significant neck and shoulder pain.

Keyboards

Many alternatives to the old standard keyboard configuration are available, some more helpful to the user than others.  While keyboards with soft keys reduce impact on the user’s body, they represent only a partial improvement.  Truly adjustable keyboards, however, have movable sections that mirror the natural angles of the user’s arms and hands.  At first, alternative keyboards were seen as oddities and prices were high.  More than two decades later, innovative keyboards are on the market for under 100 dollars.

One excellent keyboard design allows the user to place their hands directly in front of them at their body’s unique angle.  The need to move the arms to the center of the body and turn the wrists outward is eliminated.  When, instead, the equipment accommodates the user, the user avoids pain, also maintaining normal blood flow to the small structures of the hands and healthy posture.

Computer Mice

An ergonomic mouse is comfortable to use.  Rather than flattening the hand, the user  holds the updated version naturally.  Right, lefthanded, and ambidextrous versions are available.

Mousepads

Ergonomic mousepads, rather than lying flat, accommodate the shape of the hand.  Some versions are filled with gel, providing a soft surface so users can avoid strain and fatigue while maintaining blood circulation to the wrist and hand.

Keyboard trays

Keyboard trays are highly recommended to allow users’ arms to be supported close to the body.  Keyboard trays can be attached to a desk, standing desk, or chair.

Chairs

A computer user’s office chair should have an adjustable seat and back, a stable, five-wheel base, and back support.  Back heights are variable.  Some users prefer to have arm rests, but using them can affect blood circulation to the hands.  Workers sometimes use kneeling chairs and balance balls rather than standard office chairs.

Footrests

A footrest can be used to enhance natural posture.

Lighting

Overhead light diffusers are used to eliminate glare.  A task light illuminates the work on the user’s desk.  Using both together will eliminate glare on the computer screen and help keep headaches at bay.

Document holder

Use of a document holder places work in the line of sight, reducing strain.  Some models rest on the desk while others attach to one side of the computer monitor.

Room to maneuver

Providing enough room for a comfortable workspace setup is crucial for workers’ health.  When quarters are cramped, the computer mouse might be hard to reach.  Documents may be placed flat on the desk or held on workers’ laps.  If cubicle walls are too close together, the problem needs to be addressed.

The User

Even the best setup will be of little help unless the user employs good practices, including healthy postural alignment and balanced use of the body.  For example, one can have an adjustable desk, ergonomic keyboard, and well-designed chair.  But if they use the bottom desk drawer as a foot rest, slump in the chair, and rest their wrists on the edge of the desk while extending the fingers to use the keyboard, they will be inviting injury.  Using the upper arm, shoulder and back when doing computer work ensures that the small structures of the hand receive the support they need.

Ergonomics in the home

Ergonomics employed in the home can do a great deal to address common causes of injury.  Many excellent products are available to help with opening doors and cabinets.  Stair railings can be made to accommodate height and grip requirements.  Counters can be built lower with wheelchair users in mind.

Kitchen tools are available with user-friendly angles incorporated into their construction.  Fat handles and soft grips make it possible for those with arthritis and tendinitis to cook.  Skinny handles require the user to grip, while fat handles relax the hand.  Can openers, whisks and other cooking utensils, and pots and pans are all available with easy grips.  Jar openers are available in many designs.  One bagel slicer is constructed with a handle on top so its use engages the back, shoulder, and upper arm.  Wrist strain and excessive gripping can be a thing of the past.

Home seating is an important consideration.  Couches and chairs which provide back support may seem less comfortable at first glance, but your body will thank you.

Ergonomic gardening tools are widely available.  Features like fat handles, soft grips, and healthy angles help gardeners avoid pain while doing what they love.

When using a computer tablet, adding a stand will go a long way toward ensuring users’ comfort.

Dressing presents obstacles for many people.  Ergonomic innovations include big zipper pulls, big buttons, Velcro closures, assistive devices and adaptive clothing.

Other venues

Musical instruments can sometimes be adapted. Even when they cannot, safer ways to practice can be found.  For example, sometimes an instrument’s keyboard can be photocopied.  When the paper copy is folded so the finger holes are close together, a  tired or injured player can practice in some way.  An example of this is the bassoon.   The finger holes are too far apart for a player with small hands to play in a relaxed way.  Changing the configuration is sometimes helpful.

When an instrument cannot be adapted, the player can be proactive in the way they use their body.  Taking breaks, practicing hands alone on instruments which allow it, and alternating between fast and slow playing are a few actions one can take.

General Considerations

Writing

Use fat pens, engaging the upper arm, shoulder and back.  Support the forearm on a desk or table.  Using only the fingers to write places unnecessary stress on the small structures of the hand.

Cell phones

Support the hands and arms.  Text with fingers other than just the thumbs.  Use blue screen at night to avoid eye strain and insomnia.

Tablets

Support the arms and hands.  Use the body well with attention to posture.  Avoid leaning on the elbows and wrists while typing or scrolling.

Automobiles

Adjustable steering wheels, mirrors, seats, and window shading ensure comfort and postural support.  A short driver can use a firm, wedge-shaped seat cushion in order to see over the steering wheel.  Car seats sometimes include lower back support.  If not, small pillows are widely available.  Pedal extensions and sun visor extensions can be used if needed.

Shopping

As the need for improved equipment became apparent with widespread computer use and the accompanying rise in computer-related injuries, the production of new devices  exploded.  While many such products have proved helpful, it is important to use caution when making a purchase.  What makes this product ergonomic?  Will its use increase efficiency?  Examples include computer keyboards in a huge variety of configurations.  Some incorporate angles but are fixed in one position.  But even with user-friendly  changes from standard, fixed-position keyboards, one size does not fit all.  If a user’s body fits the manufacturer’s concept, then the purchase will be helpful.  If not, there are many other keyboards to try.

Being Proactive

We can influence our own longevity at work, comfort at home, and long-term ability to function well simply by thinking about ergonomics and then acting to incorporate healthier practices.  Taking breaks, for instance, is crucial for the health of the small structures of the hands and wrists.  In the 90’s, when its reporters were developing computer injuries in large numbers, one newspaper’s headquarters in Manhattan programmed all of its computers to display a blank screen once every hour.  The tactic turned out to be very effective.  If a computer user is unable to see their work on the screen, s/he will take a break, thereby relaxing the overused physical structures that are vulnerable to injury, including the eyes.

Additional steps we can take include alternating hands when possible, changing body position every few minutes, standing, following an intense effort with a more relaxed  one, performing stretches in the opposite direction of the task, conserving energy when  tired, and using the body well.  Getting aerobic exercise is important.  Maintaining good blood circulation goes a long way toward keeping injury at bay, while leaning on one’s wrists and elbows cuts off circulation immediately.

Avoiding Injury 

Awareness is the most important factor in taking care of one’s health when engaged in repetitive work.  Repetitive tasks cause injuries every day.  Being alert and addressing potential problems can allow people to remain injury-free.  If the chair at your office desk is broken, find a different chair.  If there is a glare on your computer screen, it needs to be eliminated by using better lighting.  If you are tired, ensure that you have healthy posture.  Follow an extended task that involved gripping with something that allows your hands to be relaxed.  Take breaks.  Eat regularly.  Stay hydrated.

Above all, if you experience numbness and tingling, stop immediately.  See a doctor as soon as possible.  Continuing to work while injured will only exacerbate the problem, and adding a brace to an injury will only make the injury worse.

Conclusion

Ergonomic practices and equipment have improved a great deal since they first appeared on the scene.  With employer and worker awareness, businesses can retain experienced workers and employees can enjoy longer careers.  In addition, the application of ergonomic principles in daily life increases comfort and efficiency in the office and beyond. 

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