Ergonomics in the Office

Carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis, trigger finger—these are a few of the musculoskeletal disorders that, along with muscle strains and lower back pains, can be suffered in an office environment. Those work-related injuries and musculoskeletal disorders are among the leading reasons behind lost workdays, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Repetitive movements, awkward positions, and forceful exertions are often to blame for injuries suffered on the job. Applying ergonomic principles in your workspace, however, can be an effective way to prevent musculoskeletal disorders and keep injuries at bay.

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The term “ergonomics” originates from the Greek words ergon (work) and nomol (natural laws), and essentially means “the science of work.”

What is ergonomics?
Derived from the Greek ergon (work) and nomol (natural laws), the term “ergonomics” means “the science of work.” Ergonomics seeks to fit a worker to his or her job. Ergonomic specialists, or ergonomists, incorporate knowledge from such wide-ranging fields as engineering, biomechanics and psychology to assess how an individual works and how that person’s work can be done better. Improving an individual’s comfort and boosting efficiency are the core aims of ergonomics.

Where to begin
To achieve those results, an ergonomic assessment must be completed first. An ergonomics specialist will start the assessment by considering an individual’s job and his or her unique demands, often observing the worker as he or she completes tasks and asking questions to better understand typical working conditions. The ergonomist will also take into account the equipment and information needed for an individual to complete his or her work.

During the assessment, the ergonomics specialist is looking for conditions that may lead to musculoskeletal disorders, including:

  • Repetition—ergonomists are looking for repetitive movements done over a period of hours, such as typing and using a mouse at a computer.
  • Awkward postures—these include repeated of prolonged reaching, bending, twisting, kneeling, and squatting. Also of concern is work that is done overhead with an individual’s arms and hands.
  • Forceful exertions—ergonomists will observe the amount of physical effort to complete tasks or to maintain control of equipment.
  • Contact stress—by pressing one’s body against a hard or shard edge, an individual places too much pressure on his or her blood vessels, nerves and tendons.
  • Vibration—nerve damage can occur as a result of operating vibrating tools, including sanders and drills.

Once potentially damaging conditions are identified, an ergonomics specialist can develop solutions that counter the negative factors of an individual’s work environment.

At Texas Tech, the Office of Environmental Health and Safety (EH&S) is available to conduct ergonomic assessments and provide recommendations. The office’s visit to and evaluation of your work area is free of charge. To schedule an assessment, call EH&S at (806)742-3876.

Optimizing computer workstations
EH&S is often requested to evaluate the ergonomics of office environments around campus. In doing so, EH&S staff have found that computer workstation arrangements can typically be improved upon.

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Applying ergonomic principles at a computer workstation allows a person to work more comfortably and efficiently.

In regard to computer workstations and ergonomics, here are some points to keep in mind:

  • In regard to sitting posture, an individual’s head, neck, shoulders and arms should be balanced and in line with the torso. The seat back should be angled at 90 degrees. Ideally, there should be lumbar support for the lower back.
  • The workstation user should be able to sit with relaxed shoulders in their chair. Raise or lower chair armrests so that forearms can be placed at a 90-degree angle to the upper arms. The chair’s seating height also is important. Knees should be angled at 90 degrees (though up to 105 degrees is agreeable), allowing feet to rest flat on the floor. Some individuals may need to slant their seats or use a footrest as an aid to properly position their feet. A chair’s seat should be as wide as the user’s thighs; typically, a width of 17 to 20 inches accommodates most office workers. Finally, chairs are generally designed to support people weighing up to 275 pounds, so some individuals may need a chair with greater support.
  • Workstation desktops should also allow the user to rest their forearms, wrists and hands at angles of 90 degrees to 100 degrees. Wrist and palm rests are helpful. Also, keyboard trays offer an alternative when desktops are too high, as they are custom-fitted according to the user.
  • The top of a computer monitor should be at or just below one’s eye level. The monitor should be positioned directly in front of the user and at a distance that prevents the user from having to twist, bend his or her neck, or assume an awkward posture in order to view the screen properly. Users with bifocals and trifocals should be able to work without bending their necks back.
  • Document holders and bookstands can provide assistance to users who reference printed materials while working on computers. Place them close the screen and as close to eye level as possible.
  • Position the screen to avoid reflecting glares from windows and other lighting sources. Users might add a screen glare filter or angle their screens downward to reduce glare.
  • Provide adequate space for the computer’s keyboard and mouse, whether on the desktop or if using a keyboard tray.
  • The workstation should offer adequate room for one’s legs and feet. There should be at least 2 inches of clearance between the bottom of the work surface and the top of the user’s thighs, so as not to crowd one’s legs.

The above recommendations are only an introduction to ergonomics in the workplace. OSHA offers an assortment of helpful materials for reference. To assess the ergonomics of your own computer workstation, download this Computer Workstations Evaluation Checklist from OSHA. OSHA also has provided recommendations on good working positions.

Take a break (no, really!)
It’s worth noting that even with an ideal ergonomic setup, individuals are recommended to take short breaks throughout their workday to encourage productivity and maintain health. Prolonged periods of work at a computer can lead to eyestrain. Uninterrupted hours of repetitive activity and sitting could possibly cause the very musculoskeletal disorders that ergonomics aims to prevent. Without variation in activity, muscles and tendons throughout the body can become fatigued and injured.

Here are a few tips to break up your workday:

  • If you spend a significant amount of time on the computer during the day, try the 20-20-20 rule to avoid eyestrain: After 20 minutes at the computer, turn away from the screen, and for 20 seconds, look at an object that is 20 feet away.
  • Try using an adjustable workstation that allows one to raise and lower the work surface. Such a workstation allows for users to vary seated positions with standing. When working on a computer at a standing desk, the user should position the monitor at or just below his or her eye level, and be able to work at the keyboard with his or her forearms at a 90-degree angle to the upper arms.
  • Swap out some of your mousing tasks by implementing keyboard shortcuts. For example, typing Ctrl+O to open a document or Ctrl+P to print a document.
  • To encourage movement, put together a list of tasks that must be done away from the computer and complete these tasks over the course of the day.
  • Periodically step away from your desk and stretch your muscles. The Blue Zones Project by Healthways created this poster, which features desk stretches.

Outside the office
Remember, ergonomic principles are relevant outside the office environment and can be applied in any workplace. The key is to improve an individual’s comfort and efficiency in ways that reduce the likelihood of developing musculoskeletal disorders and other work-related injuries.

More about ergonomics
If you are interested in reading more about ergonomics, OSHA published an insightful report, which includes the top occupations for musculoskeletal disorders and the cost of musculoskeletal disorders, along with other information. Read OSHA’s report.

Ergonomics at Texas Tech
Contact the Office of Environmental Health and Safety (EH&S) at Texas Tech to conduct a complementary ergonomic assessment of your work area.

Please note: The office’s visit is free of charge. Evaluations might recommend a simple rearrangement of equipment or furniture to improve the overall ergonomics of a person’s workspace, however, in certain cases, additional support accessories or equipment, such as keyboard trays or office chairs, might be recommended for individuals. EH&S also can make follow-up visits, if requested. To schedule an ergonomics assessment, call EH&S at (806)742-3876.

Monte Ferguson, senior safety officer with EH&S, sat down for an interview to discuss ergonomics. Watch the interview:

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