The best ergonomics tip – relax at work

Man Relaxing At Office Desk In a Green Field

Over the years of assessing people at work, I have noticed one important factor that rings true every time: people who are relaxed while working rarely get injured. These are the people who sit at their computers in a laid-back posture looking very untroubled. Their shoulders are low and slack, not hunched up; their back is against the backrest; their head and neck are loose, not peering forward into the computer; and their legs are stretched out in a relaxed posture. These people sometimes start to have aches and pains, but they make the necessary adjustments to stop them. Maybe they change the height of their monitor, maybe they alternate hands when mousing, maybe they use more keyboard shortcuts, maybe they try a different chair, etc. They usually keep trying a lot of different things and mix their working postures up too. They may slouch, stand, or use a laptop for half an hour in an arm chair or bean bag. They also take lots of breaks – they get water, coffee, and snacks; they chat with other people; and they go for walks outside.

And just in case it sounds like these people weren’t getting their work done, the opposite was actually true. They worked just as hard, if not harder, when they were chilling out. Maybe they had more energy to work from keeping their body loose, or maybe they were more productive because their bodies weren’t being distracted by nagging aches and pains.

It turns out my theory has been researched and proven as well. An article titled “Work technique and its consequences for musculoskeletal disorders” found that workers who had a forward neck flexion and raised arms ended up with more neck and shoulder problems. Those who had a dynamic pattern of movements were less likely to be injured.

So some of my best ergonomics advice … relax at work. Here are some things to try:

  • Keep your whole body loose. To see what relaxed feels like, tense up your muscles, take a deep breath and let them loose. Do this frequently throughout the day.
  • Pretend you’re on the couch watching TV or a movie. That’s exact feeling of relaxation you want when working.
  • Change your posture often. Try different things. Don’t be afraid to slouch or twist, just as long as you keep moving and don’t spend too much time in one posture or the other.
  • Take breaks.
  • Go for a walk.
  • Do range of motion exercises. Rotate your arms around your shoulder sockets. Alternate raising your knees to your hips when standing. Flex and extend your wrists.
  • Micropause. While waiting for your computer to load, relax your arms.
  • Deep breathe constantly. Even one deep breath gives you a feeling of instant relaxation.

Please leave a comment if you have any other tips on how to relax!

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The 1% six week plan

There is a popular concept right now called the “aggregation of marginal gains”.  The founder behind this concept is Dave Brailsford, General Manager and Performance Director for Team Sky (Great Britain’s professional cycling team).  The aggregation of marginal gains is explained as “the 1 percent margin for improvement in everything you do.”  Back in 2010, Brailsford believed that if the members of Team Sky could make 1% improvements in every area of cycling, that overall these gains would add up to significant improvement.  And it did – in three years’ time, Bradley Wiggins of Team Sky won the Tour de France, and the following year, his teammate, Chris Froome, continued the winning streak.

This concept is a great one for implementing ergonomics into your daily life.  Good ergonomics comes from many small changes in habit that add up to measurable benefit.  Many people turn to ergonomics for a quick fix which can occur sometimes, but the biggest gains come from the small changes in habit you make every day.

To improve your work habits using the 1% rule, it’s best to tackle one habit at a time and master each improvement before you move on to the next one.  That way the changes don’t become overwhelming and your mind and body have time to get used to things and solidify the new good habits.

One drawback of the 1% rule is not seeing the positive results quickly.  Due to our human nature, it’s much more satisfying to have an immediate fix, than to inch towards something.  But if your can track your gains towards an achievable outcome – pain-free work at your desk – you can see your progress and feel excited about achieving your goal.  Remember, incrementally you developed poor desk habits, now it’s time to incrementally get rid of them.

The best way to see your gains and to achieve your outcome is to follow a goal schedule.  That way you can see your improvement and it keeps you on track to achieve that perfect ergonomics set up.

Here’s a sample schedule for office work you can follow:

 

Week Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday
1 Imagine you are a puppet with a string on top of your head – sit up straight     Set a timer and get up from your desk every hour  
2   Learn a keyboard shortcut to reduce mouse use     Stop cradling your phone between your shoulder and neck
3     Set a timer and change position in your chair every 15 minutes    
4 Stop hovering your hands over your keyboard and mouse – relax when reading the screen     Learn a keyboard shortcut to reduce mouse use  
5   Limit your tablet and smartphone use – 10 minutes per session and 60 minutes total per day     Don’t perch on your chair – sit with your back against your back rest
6   Learn a keyboard shortcut to reduce mouse use     Go for a walk at lunchtime

 

If you’ve already mastered a habit, congratulations! – move on to the next one.  If you can’t master a habit in the number of days allotted, take a few more days and make sure you get it right.  Add to this schedule as needed and leave a comment about your tip to help others.

If you can stick with it and make those gains regularly, your meaningful change will definitely come your way.  Every 1% eventually adds up to 100.

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?

Computer use in vehicles

Before starting, it must be made clear that the computer use in vehicles I will be referring to is when the vehicles are parked and turned off.  Not by any means should a computer ever be used while a vehicle is in operation. 

Computers are used in vehicles by workers on the road for delivery or monitoring, e.g. police, firefighters, home care professionals, couriers, etc.  Information related to the delivery or monitoring usually needs to be entered as soon as possible into a laptop or tablet.  And while this is a timely and efficient way to input data, it unfortunately results a poor ergonomics setup.  So while an “office-in-a-vehicle” can never be completely ergonomically designed, improvements can be made.

In terms of where to put your laptop or tablet while in your vehicle, we can look at a study from Marquette University in Wisconsin where researchers tested out four different scenarios for mounting a laptop in a vehicle.  Results were as follows “Placing the mobile computer closer to the steering wheel reduced low back and shoulder muscle activity. Joint angles of the shoulders, elbows, and wrists were also closer to neutral angle. Biomechanical modeling revealed substantially less spinal compression and trunk muscle force.” (Biomechanical Effects of Mobile Computer Location in a Vehicle Cab;  http://hfs.sagepub.com/content/53/5/474.abstract)  So instead of placing your laptop on the passenger seat, it is much better to have it mounted beside the steering wheel to reduced twisting and awkward postures.

Here are some other tips for working in the car/truck:

  • Pull your shoulders back and keep upper back straight and flat (to reduce strain to back and shoulder muscles)
  • Sit with your back against the car seat (to provide support to your back muscles)
  • Relax shoulders – avoid elevating or “hunching” shoulders (to reduce strain on neck and shoulders)
  • Relax elbows close to torso – do not extend your arms in front of you (to reduce strain on your shoulders)
  • If present, adjust the lumbar support in your seat (the lumbar support should rest at the curve of your low back).
  • Use a laptop or tablet stand on your lap if your laptop or tablet is not mounted (to reduce neck strain)
  • Use headset or speakerphone at all times (to reduce strain to the neck and shoulders from cradling the phone)
  • Keep wrists neutral when keyboarding and mousing, i.e. keep wrists straight (to reduce wrist strain)

And finally, keep data entry in the vehicle to a minimum.  Save longer tasks for when you’re in the office with a better ergonomic setup.  Mobile computing is useful and important, but it shouldn’t leave with you ergonomic injuries.

Screen time overload

How many peoples’ day goes something like this?  You get up in the morning, shower, have breakfast, and in-between you check your emails and the news using a computer, laptop, tablet or phone.  Then you go to work, during which time you are likely using your phone or tablet if you go by subway or train.  While you are at work, you spend a large amount of time on the computer.  Really when you add it up, you are on the computer 90% of your day, 95% if you eat lunch at your desk and use the computer then too.  Then you commute home with more screen time.  Eat dinner, and then likely some more screen time after dinner, and maybe even more screen time with your tablet in bed.  Then you go to bed and start it all again the next day.

Unfortunately this type of day brings the risk factor “overuse” into overdrive.  Your body cannot get a break from screen time and these parts of your body start to suffer:

  • Eyes – strain from looking at screens all day
  • Neck – from bending your head over your phone or tablet
  • Shoulders – from holding your phone or tablet and when using your laptop or computer
  • Forearms, fingers, and thumbs – from using your muscles to type, mouse, swipe, point, etc.
  • Wrists – from holding your phone or tablet

 Overuse isn’t the only risk factor.  These risk factors also come into play:

  • Force and contact stress– from gripping your phone or tablet
  • Repetitive motion and awkward postures– in the neck, forearms, wrists, fingers, and thumbs
  • Static postures – in the back, hips, and legs from sitting/being inactive too long

So what can you do?  The most important thing is to take frequent breaks from screen time.  Check your emails and the news in the morning, but limit your time to 10-15 minutes.  Don’t use your phone or tablet during your whole commute –listen to music or an audio book and give your hands a break.  Get up from your desk every hour at work – walk around the office, shake out your hands, rotate your wrists,  loosen up your neck (bring your ear to each shoulder and look over your shoulder on each side a few times).  Don’t each lunch at your desk or at the very least, don’t spend your whole lunch hour there – take a walk outside or socialize with co-workers.  Limit your screen time at home too.  Watch TV or movies so your arms are relaxed.  Or better yet, get away from all screens – take a walk, listen to music, play with your children or dog, do yoga, go for a bike ride, or just chill.  Take a break from screen time and your body will thank you.

Static standing all day

Do you have a job that requires you to stand all day in one spot with minimal moving? Some examples would be cashiers, assembly line workers, lab technicians, and hair stylists.  These types of jobs require standing in one spot with infrequent walking.  Unfortunately, this type of static standing wreaks havoc on your back and can cause fairly significant pain.  But solutions can be found to make your day a lot easier.

First off, why is it so hard on your back?  When you are standing, the vertebrae in your back load nicely on top of each other with the vertebral discs in-between.  Standing itself is not bad posturally, but for long periods of time it is.  If you don’t change the position of the lumbar spine (lower back) periodically, the muscles and tendons surrounding the vertebrae get tired and can’t support the back as well.  This results in increase lumbar compression meaning that the discs are being squished between the bony vertebrae.  After much lumbar compression over time, there is a possibility of the disc herniating which means that it could slip out of its space between the vertebrae.  When this happens, the disc may touch a nerve root and that’s when the real pain begins.

So to avoid this happening, the following can be implemented:

  • Wear shock absorbing shoes such as running shoes.  A rubberized sole lessens the forces from standing and compressing the spine.  If you can’t wear running shoes, try a rubberized insert such as Spenco or Scholls Orthoheel.  Make sure the insert is shock absorbing – many insoles are not.
  • Use an antifatigue mat.  These shock absorbing mats perform the same function as an insert.  Once again, make sure the mat is thick and rubberized for maximal shock absorption.
  • Work at the proper height.  If your work area is too low, you will bend at the waist and compress the vertebrae further.
  • Take a load off by raising your foot.  Have you ever wondered why some people at the pub can stand at the bar seemingly all night?  Check out the foot rail surrounding the bar.   When patrons put one foot on the rail, the position of their pelvis changes and pressure is taken off their lumbar spine.   You can find the same relief at your job.  Get a foot stool or put your foot on a shelf, 6-8 inches from the ground.   Your back will thank you.
  • Stand against a wall.  If a stool is not an option, find a wall and put your back against it.  Place your hand in-between your low back and the wall.  Press your back against your hand for 5-10 seconds.  This changes the position of your pelvis and relieves low back discomfort.
  • Use a sit-stand stool.  Taking breaks to lean and halfway sit down throughout the day will reduce compression.  Here is an example of what a sit-stand stool looks like http://www.labsafety.com/lyon-sit-stand-stool-seat-height-23-12—33-12h_s_27282/

 Taking care of your back and reducing compression will do wonders.   Don’t forget proper rest breaks – this is your chance to sit and take a load off.

Low back pain– causes and solutions

Part 4 in a Series

In 1997, NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) released a publication called Musculoskeletal Disorders and Workplace Factors, A Critical Review of Epidemiologic Evidence for Work-Related Musculoskeletal Disorders of the Neck, Upper Extremity, and Low Back http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/97-141/pdfs/97-141.pdf . Although this report over 20 years old, the valuable information about what causes work-related injuries remains current.

 

One of the most interesting parts of the report is the evidence of work-relatedness to injuries.  From the 40 epidemiologic studies they evaluated, NIOSH judged how strong they felt the evidence was that the injury or musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) was caused by the ergonomic risk factor.   Ergonomic risk factors include:  force, repetition, awkward postures, and static postures to name a few.  The categories they used were:

  • Strong Evidence of Work-Relatedness (+++) – a causal relationship
  • Evidence of Work-Relatedness (++) – convincing epidemiologic evidence for a causal relationship
  • Insufficient Evidence of Work-Relatedness (+/0) – could not conclude the presence or absence of a causal relationship
  • Evidence of No Effect of Work Factors (-) – the specific risk factor is not related to MSDs

What they found for low back pain (LBP) was this:

  1. Evidence of Work-Relatedness (++) between back disorders and heavy physical work
  • For example, baggage handlers perform heavy physical work.
  • Ergonomic interventions that would help would be limits on baggage weight, use of hand carts, and proper lifting techniques.
  • Additional information on baggage handling can be found here:  http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/etools/baggagehandling/index.html

 

  1. Strong Evidence of Work-Relatedness (+++) between back disorders and forceful movements
  • Construction workers perform forceful movements.
  • A spring assisted or pneumatic finishing tool for drywalling, half bags of cement, and hydraulic lifts are some good ergonomic solutions.
  • More ergonomic solutions can be found here:  http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/2007-122/pdfs/2007-122.pdf

 

  1. Evidence of Work-Relatedness (++) between back disorders and work related awkward postures

 

  1. Strong Evidence of Work-Relatedness (+++) between back disorders and whole body vibration
  • Crane operators would be at risk here.
  • Tires should be inflated properly, the seat suspension adjusted, and posture should be changed frequently throughout the day.

 

Proper research in ergonomics helps us determine what things at work cause more injuries.  Future research will clarify evidence even further so that new ergonomic interventions and recommendations can be made.  I hope these posts have helped you determine what causes injury at your work and that you have been able to take the steps needed to correct problems.