Ergonomics a good fit for ailing workers

Tingling fingers. Aching back. Throbbing wrists. To some who toil in the tech trade, these symptoms are as familiar as logging overtime on a project. What’s lesser known about these aches and pains is that they could be warning signs that significant injuries are just around the corner.


to reports from the Canadian Centre for Occupational Heath and Safety (CCOHS), discomfort, numbness and tingling are danger signs that should not go unchecked.

“”If these signals are ignored, pain, chronic problems and long-term disability are likely to follow,”” the report states.

One out of every 10 Canadians suffers from a repetitive motion strain that is serious enough to limit their normal activities, according to Statistics Canada. These ailments, which can result from activities such as keyboarding and mousing, were responsible for more than 12,000 time-loss injuries for Canadians in 2002, according to reports from the Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada (AWCBC). In fact, AWCBC reports that musculoskeletal injuries, or MSIs — those that involve soft tissues such as muscles, joints, tendons, ligaments and cartilage, as well as the nervous system — account more than half of all workplace injuries.

CCOHS says the work-related factors that present the greatest risk for MSIs include:

• fixed and constrained postures that are frequently awkward, uncomfortable and maintained for too long a time

• repetitive and forceful hand movements

• a high pace of work.

These injuries come at a cost, both to individual employees and corporations. The Occupational Safety & Health Administration reports that in 2002, workplace injuries cost American businesses more than US$125 billion.

Companies are beginning to recognize that paying closer attention to occupational ergonomics can pay dividends — in attracting and retaining employees, as well as in increasing their productivity quotients.

At the British Columbia Securities Commission, ergonomic assessments begin when a new employee joins the company, says Marita Bruun, a human resources advisor at BCSC.

“”When new employees start, we offer them a formal ergonomics assessment,”” she explains. “”We go to their workstation, talk to them about their concerns and any prior injuries.””

Key to this discussion, says Bruun, is collecting information about their personal habits — including their home computer set-up and fitness regimens — as well as work habits.

Don Patten, a certified ergonomist with Human Factors North in Toronto, says a sound ergonomics program will cover the following questions:

• symptoms the person is experiencing (even ones people think are not related to computer use)

• the length of time spent at the computer (both at work and home)

• activities most often repeated, including keyboarding or mousing.

Key to all of this, says Patten, is that the assessment is based on the individual and not the equipment.

“”Companies often mass purchase their equipment,”” he says, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all world.

Bruun says BCSC, which has about 200 employees, follows Workers Compensation Board of B.C.’s guidelines to ensure employees’ chairs, keyboards, monitors and lighting are optimally arranged for each employee.

It’s important to treat everyone as an individual, says Bruun, and not fall into the trap of providing one ergonomics “”solution”” for all employees.

“”If someone is doing a lot of ‘net surfing or design work, the mouse position is going to be a high priority,”” she says. “”If they’re doing general word processing, both the keyboard and mouse are something we’ll look at.””

For people who perform a lot of “”mousing”” as part of their daily work, Bruun advises that the mouse be shifted regularly from the right hand to the left hand. She says “” until you get used to it, you won’t be as fast,”” but in the long run, it can prevent an injury.

Bruun encourages employees to incorporate as much job variety into their day as possible and to take micro breaks every half hour or so.

“”If the phone rings, stand up to answer it,”” she says.

For many IT workers in this country who have received strict mandates to do more with less over the past few years, the thought of taking a break may seem more like a luxury than a necessity. But ergonomics experts contend a change in posture, even for a short time, will result in a higher level of productivity. Patten says it works in much the same way as hockey players’ short stints on the ice.

“”Good hockey players play 20 or 25 minutes per game in a 60-minute game, but they’re not skating for 25 minutes straight,”” he says. “”They are taking micro breaks — skating for a bit, recovering and going back out on the ice because they want to be just as good in the last shift of the third period as they are in the first period. They’re getting more out of their bodies by taking the breaks.””

One of the biggest mistakes computer users make, according to Patten, is static loading — keeping muscles in a holding pattern for a long time without a lot of movement.

“”When you’re sitting at a workstation and reaching for your mouse or typing, you really fatigue your muscles, so you’re not able to perform (optimally) and productivity decreases,”” he says.

Computer users can combat static loading by maintaining an ideal posture: hips and knees should be aligned while sitting, shoulders should be relaxed, and hands should be parallel and slightly below desk level while in the typing position.

“”Regardless of the recommendations I make or the equipment that’s supplied, it’s this static loading that, at the end of the day, is going to cause muscles to fatigue,”” Patten explains. “”If you have your knees higher than your hips, that will increase the pressure on the back. Same thing if our knees are lower than our hips. We want to maintain a natural S curve in the spine.””

Office chairs are an important consideration in determining how comfortable, or pain-free people will be in the long run. Patten suggests chairs that are modular, so the components — seat, arm rests, back rests — can change, depending on the size of the person. For those who don’t have the option of modular office furniture, there are a few simple tips for proper set-up of an office chair.

“”As you’re sitting, your thighs should be parallel and your desk should be a few centimetres below your elbow height when positioned at the keyboard,”” says Patten. “”The depth of the seat is also important. The front of the seat should not be pressing on the back of the knees. Sometimes people will change positions, move forward, to keep this from happening, but then they lose back support.””

All the office chairs at BCSC have a five-prong base, which is recommended by ergonomics experts so it can be optimally adjusted for each individual.

“”The latest ergonomics research indicates a 100- to 110-degree tilt backwards put less pressure on the lumbar region — so we adjust the chair so it fits into the small of the back,”” she says.

The 45 employees in BCSC’s Information Management Services division, which is responsible for the agency’s information systems, records management and knowledge management, are more susceptible to certain injuries, says Bruun, because of the amount of time they log at their computers.

“”We enjoy a low rate of repetitive strain types of problems, but generally in IT, anyone spending a lot of time on the computer, at home and work, will be susceptible to strains, tendonitis and MSIs,”” she says.

Bruun says sound ergonomics are just one part of an overall wellness strategy BCSC has embraced to ensure its staff is properly “”looked after.””

“”From a psychological perspective, it’s a good practice in order to attract and retain employees,”” she says. She also points to the fact that as baby boomers start retiring, there will be greater competition in the market for talent, and that wellness programs could make all the difference in attracting top talent. In addition to the ergonomics program, BCSC offers a number of other perks designed to keep employees happy and healthy. Its wellness program provides up to $500 for each employee who joins a gym, an initiative Bruun says makes good business sense.

“”People who are committed to a fitness regimen are much less likely to get injured on the job,”” she explains, adding that with an aging workforce injury prevention is the best insurance to ensure longevity.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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