Want to avoid injury at work? Gain control over your job

Studies are showing that the amount of control you feel you have over your job plays a big part on whether you get injured at work and also, if you do get injured, how quickly you come back to work.  Researchers in Japan found that low job control significantly increased the risk for occupational injury (Sakurai, K., et al).  Researchers in California found over a 30% higher return to work rate for people who reported high levels of job control (Krause, N., et al)

So how can you improve your job control at work?

Team-based approach – Companies who switch to a team based approach find that feelings of job control improve (Ford Motor Company study).  Approach your supervisor about forming a team or if you have a team, make sure that everyone has an important role.

Telecommuting and/or flexible hours – Workers who telecommute and/or have flex hours report feeling much more in control of their time (Journal of Applied Psychology).  Speak to your supervisor about the possibility of working from home once a week or working hours that are compatible with your schedule.

Environment – Is your lighting poor?  Are you too cold or too hot?  Do you feel uncomfortable at your workstation?  Having control over your environment increases your feeling of job control (Liberty Mutual Institute study). Investigate whether lighting can be improved.  Talk to the facilities staff about being able to control the temperature in your area.  Speak to human resources about having an ergonomics evaluation done to address discomfort areas.

Extra duties – Being able to take on duties that you feel are important will improve your sense of job control.  Speak to your supervisor about your ideas to see if they can be incorporated into your job.

Lifestyle changes – Does your company have a wellness program?  A Dutch company that implemented changes found increased job control among other benefits.  If your company has a wellness program, approach the organizer to see if you can help out.  If your company does not have a program, speak to your supervisor about starting one.  Some ideas include:  starting a weekly exercise or yoga class, approaching the cafeteria about healthier food options, and introducing employee or team challenges for miles walked per week.

There are many ways people can improve their sense of satisfaction at work.  What are some ways you gain job control?


Advice for DIY computer ergonomics


I think most of us have seen this type of ergonomics graphic that depicts the proper heights and distances for computer users.  Although this graphic can be helpful, it can be limiting too.  I’m all for people trying to improve their computer workstation ergonomics on their own using this graphic, but I do have a few words of advice to help you along:

If you change the height of one thing, you need to change everything else too.

  • For example, say you lowered your chair so your feet could be flat on the floor.  You then need to change the height of your keyboard and mouse so that your forearms are parallel and your elbows are at 90 degree angles.  Following that you need to adjust the height of your monitor so that your eyes are level with the top of the screen.  Get a coworker to help you by looking at you from the side and so you achieve the right heights

Even a few millimeters or 1/8th of an inch can make a difference when you’re making height adjustments.

  • Getting your keyboard at the exact position for you is an art.  You want to make sure your shoulders are completely relaxed, and your forearms and wrists are as straight as possible.  Raising or lowering from your perfect position can causes aches and pains right away or over time.  Make a small mark on your desk or wall to make sure you have the right position every time.

Even a few millimeters or 1/8th of an inch can make a difference when you’re making depth adjustments.

  • Achieving the proper lumbar support is important.  If you don’t get it right, you can end up with increased back pain.  Many chairs have pre-molded lumbar support that unfortunately cannot be adjusted.  If you have the means, adjustability in the form of an air pump feature in your chair is the best because you can inflate and deflate the lumbar support to the right depth for you.  A height adjustable backrest will help you get the proper positioning so that the curve of your low back is supported.

Monitor positioning is different for bifocal, trifocal and progressive lens use

  • If you wear bifocals, trifocals or progressive lenses, the monitor is best 2-3 inches lower than recommended.  That’s because you read out of the bottom of your lens and having the monitor at the “correct height” will result in neck discomfort from your chin tilting up.  Once again, height is crucial so keep playing with the height until you get it right.

Buying random “ergonomic” computer equipment is a game of roulette.

  • If you have wrist pain and buy a split keyboard or a new mouse hoping it will help, there’s a chance it will, there’s a chance it won’t, and there’s a chance you can make your pain worse.  Also what’s termed ergonomic is always the case.  Sometimes the word ergonomics is thrown in for marketing purposes.  You can keep buying and trying stuff, but it’s better to get advice from a certified ergonomics consultant.  It will save you money in the long run.

Looking at the graphic can’t help you with unique postures.

  • Leaning on an armrest, tilting your head to the side, or peering into the screen with your chin jutted out – these are all postures that aren’t helping you, but you may not even be aware you are doing them.  If you do them too much, you can end up in pain.  Your coworker can help you here again by observing you during the day and pointing out these potential problems as they see them.

Looking at the graphic can’t help you with changing position.

  • Changing your position is the best thing you can do to help yourself ergonomically.  Make sure you move around in your chair as much as possible (even slouching and sitting forward on occasion) along with getting up and to stand, walk, or exercise.  Staying in the “proper ergonomic position” all day every day is not very good at all.  This graphic needs a picture of break time too!

Move it, will ya! Ergonomics served best active.

Of all the advice I can give as an ergonomics consultant, the best one is – change position frequently.  Here are some of the reasons why:

Your blood needs to move.  Blood is oxygenated and filled with healing agents for your body.  If you don’t move your body, blood doesn’t flow and your body can’t heal itself.  You could then end up with a Work Related Musculoskeletal Disorder (WMSD).

Your muscles need to move.  When you don’t move your muscles, they can’t rid themselves of waste material and toxins.  As a result, they seize up and get sore resulting in muscle cramps.  Also, your muscles shorten and get tight which puts pressure on your bones and nerves.  Tight hamstrings can cause sore backs; tight shoulder muscles can cause headaches.

Your spine needs to move.  After sitting or standing for long periods of time, your spine compresses.  Unfortunately with time, this compression can result in a herniated disc.

Your nerves need movement.  Without movement, nerves can become pinched nerves or result in a peripheral neuropathy like carpal tunnel syndrome which symptoms include hand tingling and pain

So how do you get in the habit of changing position frequently?  The first thing you need to do is get yourself a timer.  Use your phone or an online timer.  Set the timer for a maximum of 20 minutes, less if you can.  Every 20 minutes do one of the following.

1.  If you’re sitting, get up and walk for 20 seconds.

2.  If you’re standing, sit down for 20 seconds.

3.  Do a stretch – hold it for 30 seconds.

  • Put your right arm overhead and lean to the left.  Do the same with the left arm.
  • Grab the back of your office chair while sitting and twist to one side.  Twist to the other.
  • Stand, bend one leg behind you and grab your ankle to stretch the front of your thigh.  Repeat with the other leg.

4.  Do an exercise.

  • March in place.
  • Swing your arms around your body.
  • Hang your head and rotate from side to side.

5.  Change your position.

  • If you’re sitting against your backrest, lean forward and back a few times.
  • Push yourself up off your chair with your armrests, raising your hips off the chair seat.
  • If you’re standing, rest one leg on a footrest 6-8 inches above the ground.

Be creative!  Anything you can do to move your body will help.  Even the often-condemned slouching is a different position and is good for your body in small doses.  And don’t forget to keep at it.  Once you form the habit of moving, you’ll never go back to staying in one place.  And now that you’ve finished reading this, it’s time to move.

The paleo lifestyle and ergonomics

I recently read an article that included ergonomics as part of the paleolithic lifestyle.  At first I was baffled – how does changing your diet to eat like a caveman correspond with ergonomics?  But as I did some more research, I found out more about the paleo lifestyle and I agree that ergonomics does play a part.

The paleolithic lifestyle has arisen from the thought that it is more natural for humans to live like cavemen did for millions of years than how we live now in the Neolithic or agriculture era which has only been around for 10,000 years.  It is thought that if we adopt the lifestyle of a hunter-gatherer, there will be less obesity, cardiovascular disease, allergies, depression, and chronic stress due to healthier foods and being more active.

One of the cornerstones of ergonomics training is not to stay in one position or movement for too long.   The body is meant to be active in a variety of postures and movements, and staying in one position or movement for too long causes health problems.  These problems stem namely from reduction in blood circulation (which results in muscle cramping and strain on the tissues of the body) and from overuse (repetitively stressing the muscles, tendons, ligaments, etc. of the body).  On a longer term basis, this can result in musculoskeletal disorders such as carpal tunnel syndrome and chronic low back pain as well as diseases such as obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and heart disease.

So what can you do to adopt a more paleo lifestyle using ergonomics?  Here are a few ideas:

  • Move – If you sit all day, take standing breaks.  If you stand all day, take sitting breaks.  People who work in an office environment on the computer should get up from their chairs every 30 minutes.  People who stand at work should have a place to sit down every 30-60 minutes to give their bodies a break.  These breaks in posture don’t have to be long – even 30 seconds helps – but they do have to be as frequent as possible.  They should also involve additional body movement – circle your shoulders, swing your arms, and twist from side to side.
  • Change position – If you can’t get away from your chair, move in your chair.  Sit forward, sit back, cross your legs, uncross your legs, slouch, sit up, lift your bum off the chair and lower to one side or the other.  If you have to keep standing, move your hips around, raise one knee up at a time, swing legs to the side or across the body.  Don’t forget your neck, shoulders, and arms – raise, lower, circle, and stretch.
  • Change, add, or take away equipment – People who sit all day should consider a sit-stand workstation so they can change positions.  Another option is sitting on an exercise ball for 10 minutes out of every hour (I don’t recommend using an exercise ball exclusively because using it for too long puts a strain on your back muscles).  People who stand in one place all day should consider using a 6 inch footrest so they can prop up one foot or the other periodically during the day.  If you can, go barefoot or shoeless occasionally.
  • Surround yourself with nature – Wherever you work, try to involve nature.  Bring plants or rock arrangements to your workplace.  Hang pictures of mountains, forests, or the ocean – even pictures have been found to provide the healing effects of nature.  Go for a walk during your lunch break – try to go where there are lots of trees, grass, rocks, or water.  Make sure to bask in the sun for a bit too.

I’m sure everyone can agree that anything that we can do to help prevent disease is worth trying.  The paleo philosophy of keeping active and staying in tune with nature corresponds with the ergonomic principle of working in a variety of different postures and movements – these are things I think we can all see the benefit in.

Computer ergonomics when working from home – Part 2

In my last post, I wrote about how to set up a more comfortable working environment at home by suggesting equipment and what heights and distances the equipment should be at.  In this post, I would like to speak about the second part of working at home ergonomics:  posture and work organization.  Here is a list of tips aimed at you and your body that will help you in the home office:

  1. Avoid “chicken neck” – Many people sit in front of the computer, leaning forward with their head and chin pulled into the monitor as though they can’t see it.  As you can imagine, this posture is very tough on the neck and shoulders.  First off, make sure your monitor is at the right distance – if it’s too far away, you can’t help but lean in to see it.  Then make sure the font is not too small, and increase it if it is.  And if those aren’t the problems, monitor your posture.  Set a timer and check for chicken neck every 15 minutes.
  2. Perfect posture – All you have to do to have impeccable posture is to imagine you are a puppet.  Pretend there is a string attached to the very top of your head and imagine that that string is pulling you up.  When this happens, you will automatically stop slouching, stop rounding your shoulders, and your chin and head will come into perfect alignment with your spine.  As with chicken neck, set a timer to be a puppet.
  3. Sit properly – Many people who work at home sit down in front of the computer periodically throughout the day “just to take care of a few things”.  This is all fine and good, but the problem is with how they sit which is usually perched on the front edge of their chair without resting their back against the backrest. Try to resist this posture because before you know it, you’ll be 15 minutes in and your back/neck will start protesting.  If you plan to be any longer than one minute at the computer, make the effort to sit down properly with your back against your back rest and your chair pulled in.
  4. Relax – Most people when they are rushed or are on a deadline will hunch up their shoulders and lean into the computer.  I think it makes us feel like we will work harder!  Try to relax instead and save the energy you put into that hunched up posture for work itself.
  5. Move around a lot – One of the luxuries of working at home is that you can take as many breaks as you want (as long as the work gets done of course!).  Take advantage of this by getting up from your chair frequently.  Go and fold that laundry for a standing and moving break, then come back to your desk.  Do a few yoga poses or just move:  circle your arms and roll your shoulders.  Don’t forget to take a short walk at lunch – this has physical, mental, emotional and social benefits all rolled into one.
  6. Avoid “hovering” – When you’re at the computer, there is a surprising amount of pause time when you are not keyboarding or mousing, but rather reading the screen or thinking.  During these pauses, many people hover their hands over the keyboard or mouse in anticipation of their next move.  Unfortunately this requires muscular effort when you could be resting your hands, wrists, and forearms and giving them a much needed break.  During these times, put your hands in your lap, down by your sides, or drape them over the keyboard and/or mouse so that they are completely relaxed.

As you can see, working from home does not have to be an ergonomic nightmare and can actually be beneficial.  Take advantage of the benefits that working from home offers to be happy, healthy, and injury free.

Computer ergonomics when working from home – Part 1

In this day and age, people are working from home more and more often.  Some people work overtime on weeknights and weekends and some people work from home full-time and don’t go into an office at all.  There are definite pros for working at home such as taking breaks more often and eliminating a long commute, but there are cons too.  The most noticeable con is a working environment that is not ergonomically correct. Very rarely does ergonomics come to mind when putting a home workstation together – there is likely more concern about where space can be found!  For many people, there is no home workstation at all, but rather the kitchen table or the couch with their laptop.

So how can you put your home office together without breaking the bank?  Here are a few tips:

1.  Office chair – For full-time at-home workers, I don’t think there’s any way around not getting a good office chair.  There are too many hours in the day to be sitting on a hard, non-adjustable kitchen chair.  These are the minimum chair features you will need:

  • Height adjustability – For the most comfort, your feet should rest on the floor with your knees and hips at 90 degree angles.
  • Proper seat pan depth – For those with shorter legs, you will need a small seat pan.  You don’t want the backs of your knees coming in contact with the front of the seat or you will be uncomfortable and will end up sitting at the front of your chair.  For those with longer legs, you will need a larger seat so that your legs are supported fully.  For everyone, make sure there is 1-2 inches between the front of the chair and the back of your knees.
  • Height adjustable armrests that lower below the worksurface – Most chairs don’t have armrests that lower enough to fit under your desk or keyboard tray.  Sometimes it’s better not to have armrests at all.
  • Comfort – This is not a feature as much as how the chair feels to you.  Ideally you would be able to try the chair out at home for a few days before buying.
  • Extras – For greater comfort, try to get a chair with lumbar support and a height and angle adjustable backrest.

2.  Height adjustable worksurface – To reduce strain on your neck, shoulders, and back while using your keyboard; your elbows should be at your sides at a 90 degree angle with your forearms parallel to the floor.  Standard desks will be too high for most of the population, except maybe for those who are 6’6” or taller.  A great inexpensive solution is the Galant desk from Ikea – you can raise or lower the legs to the proper height for you.  However if you are shorter or taller than most people and if more than one person is using the workstation, a better choice would be a standard desk with a height and tilt adjustable keyboard tray

3.  Computer – Use a separate monitor and keyboard rather than a laptop.  When using a laptop, you can’t separate the monitor and keyboard which leaves you with your head and neck bent down and your arms and shoulders raised up.  If you must use a laptop:  recline on your bed or on the couch with your back, neck and head supported with pillows; your legs straight and supported; and your laptop on your thighs.

4.  Monitor – Place it directly in front of you an arm’s length away and make sure the top of the monitor is level with your eyes.  If it’s not, use books to prop it up.

5.  Telephone – Use speakerphone if you can, or invest in a headset.  You should always avoid cradling your phone between your ear and your shoulder.

The above tips will help you take care of the environment around you, but there are other things you can do to make your home working experience more ergonomic.  Stay tuned for Part 2…

Student Learning Improves with Ergonomics

Improving the performance of students is a constant and evolving goal.  A recent study, Designing learning environments to promote student learning: Ergonomics in all but name by Thomas J. Smith, School of Kinesiology, University of Minnesota, finds that the design of classrooms and buildings is a strong predictor of improved performance in K-12 students.  This follows the ergonomics principle of “fitting the task to the person, not the person to the task”.  Ergonomically, how can we make the environment better to encourage learning?

When we speak about design in the classroom, it can mean a number of different things:

  • Physical design – textbooks, audiovisual materials, desks, chairs, computers, and classrooms
  • Cognitive design – skills, tasks, knowledge, and curriculum
  • Social design – interaction between students and teachers

So how can ergonomics help students learn?  In looking through the literature, it appears that research still needs to be done.  Here are a few ideas based on ergonomic principles that I think warrant further investigation:

  1. Adjustable and/or different sizes of chairs – Students spend many hours in chairs that do not fit their bodies.  Ideally they would be provided with adjustable chairs and shown how to adjust them.  At the very least they should be provided with chairs of different sizes and education on how to sit properly.
  2. Less sitting – Providing standing workstations as an alternative to sitting should be provided in every classroom.  The standing workstations can be single for one person or for group activities.  Changes in posture would reduce discomfort, increase blood flow, and foster creativity.
  3. Adjustable keyboard trays and monitor risers – Now that technology has become a larger part of learning, adjustments must follow.  Keyboard trays need to lower to just above lap height and monitors need to be raised to eye level.
  4. Limits on laptops and tablets – Many schools are providing laptops and tablets to students.  Although helpful for learning, they force the student to conform to awkward postures that can result in injury.  They should be used minimally or with the option to dock so that an external keyboard with tray and monitor can be used.
  5. Textbooks – Textbooks are cumbersome, both physically and mentally.  There is still a place for textbooks in school as an alternative to screen time, but with less emphasis than in the past.
  6. Noise – The noise level in classrooms has been found to deter learning ability, both from students being unable to hear and noise affecting concentration.  Classrooms should be built with more sound absorption qualities in the ceiling tiles and flooring.  Corkboards and fabric on the walls also helps.  Baffles to cordon off part of the classroom should be available.
  7. Air quality – More emphasis should be focused on providing “green” materials in the classroom.  Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s) are found in paints, cleaning supplies, furnishings, photocopiers and printers, and art supplies.  Care must be taken to reduce exposure.  HVAC systems must be inspected and cleaned regularly.  Other pollutants associated with moisture and vehicle exhaust must be eliminated.  Green walls would be wonderful additions to schools.
  8. Emerging technology – More research needs to be done in this area to investigate which technologies are helpful and which are harmful.  One area that has been investigated is delayed response feedback problems.  Delay in feedback from the computer has been shown to disrupt performance more than any other design feature (T.J. Smith, 1993; T.J. Smith, Henning, and Smith, 1994).
  9. Curriculum – Hands on learning has found to be more effective than standardized tests so this needs to be incorporated.  Every student learns in different ways so teachers need additional training on how to achieve this when presenting the curriculum.
  10. Social design – Investigation into the student-teacher relationship.  What social qualities promote learning? The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) indicates there are five key sets of social emotional learning/emotional intelligence skills; self-awareness, social awareness, self-management and organization, responsible decision making, relationship management.  These need to be taught in the classroom through the learning of rules, how to problem solve, how to show respect, how to be positive in the classroom, how to talk about feeling, and how to resolve conflict.  A socially positive environment will improve learning.

Taking into account these suggestions, the most important part of integrating ergonomic principles into schools is to determine what strategies work.  Those strategies should then be integrated into school policy at the community level, and ideally a national level.  Making learning easier through ergonomics is a task well worth taking on.