The Economics of Ergonomics

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By Amy Leung, CSP, ARM, CRIS, Risk Control Advisor, Cavignac & Associates

The consequences of poor ergonomics in the workplace can be extremely costly. The cost of a bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome claim, which is fairly common amongst office workers, can range from $15,000 to $100,000+ depending on how aggressively a company manages factors such as days away from work as well as the cost to correct the conditions that led to the injury. This will have a significant impact on your loss experience and you will end up paying most of the costs on the back-end through higher workers compensation premiums!

This hard dollar cost is in addition to the physical discomfort of neck and shoulder pain, back aches, eyestrain, sensitive wrists and hands, and tingling fingers caused by poor ergonomics. These are warning signs that need to be addressed before there is significant injury or damage.

Most of us show up to the office day after day and begin working without thought or consideration given to our work areas. But has that area and related equipment been properly set up and positioned so that we can perform our work with minimal physical stress to our bodies? Will the daily repetitive motions that we perform for hours eventually take a toll on our bodies?

We have all heard of the phrase “work smarter not harder”.  This is exactly what ergonomics is all about–fitting the job or task to the person, not vice versa.

Ergonomics has been defined as, “A science that deals with designing and arranging things so that people can use them easily and safely; the parts or qualities of an object’s design that makes it easy to use.”

An entry from Concise Encyclopedia summarizes:

“A profession of designing machines, tools, and work environments to best accommodate human performance and behavior. It aims to improve the practicality, efficiency, and safety of a person working with a single machine or device (e.g., using a telephone, driving a car, or operating a computer terminal).”

It’s Not One Size Fits All

Assess the specific job tasks and duties; not everyone has the same work process. It’s important to adapt the working environment for each person. Analyze the workflow and requirements to understand the physical exposures. For example, someone who uses the phone more often than the computer needs to prioritize the location of the phone and related items (notepad, pen, etc.) versus a person who rarely uses the phone, yet spends eight or more hours on the computer.

Where Do I Start?

Chairs

Chairs are the starting point as they are the item that is most frequently set up incorrectly. Ideally, your chair should have the ability to adjust to your physical build (height, tilt, depth of the seat pan, lumbar support and armrests). When seated properly, your feet should be flat on the floor, your thighs parallel to the floor with approximately 2-3 finger widths of space behind your knee to yield adequate leg support.  The lumbar support should be positioned and adjusted to support your lower back in a comfortable working position.  Armrests must be used judiciously and they should be positioned so that the bottom of your forearm gently rests on top of the armrest when your arms are at a 90-degree angle, with your shoulders relaxed, not hunched.

The goal is to have each element of the chair support your body when you’re in a properly seated position, rather than altering your posture to adapt to a chair that doesn’t fit.

Keyboard and Monitor Position

Your monitor should be positioned so that your eyes are level with the bottom of the upper third of the screen. The monitor should be a minimum of an arm’s length away (18” to 24”) and the angle of your keyboard should either be neutral or tilted slightly forward so that your wrists remain straight when typing.

Computing-related injuries are on the rise due to the increased production demands at workstations that create less-than-optimal body positioning.

Integrating good ergonomic concepts and principles into job tasks that take up a significant portion of an employee’s time should be considered best practice and will make a big impact on minimizing or eliminating the frequency and severity of cumulative trauma/repetitive motion injuries.

Lighting

There are many factors to consider when preparing a work area:

•     Illumination level

•     Direction of light

•     Light color

•     Light intensity

•     Is there enough light?

•     Is there too much contrast?

•     Are there any points with glare, reflection       or shadows?

•     Is the task lighting appropriate?

The right amount and type of light can influence – positively or negatively – your levels of energy. A mix of fluorescent and incandescent light provides good color and reduces flicker. If possible, incorporate natural light.

Proper Workstation Ergonomics

Don’t Forget to Blink!

Eyestrain associated with computer use has become so common nowadays that the American Optometric Association has a nickname for it – C.V.S. or Computer Vision Syndrome.

When viewing a computer screen, the average person blinks 4 times per minute, much less than the normal 22 blinks per minute. Although eyestrain may not lead to permanent problems, the discomfort it temporarily causes can affect productivity resulting in lost work time, or even reduced job satisfaction.

Use the “20/20” rule – look away from your computer or close your eyes for 20 seconds every 20 minutes. Use lubricating eye drops (not the redness-reducing drops) before you need them and don’t forget to blink!

To reduce the risk of injury and potential loss of work caused by repetitive motion, at a minimum you should consider adjusting your workstation using the basic guidelines discussed previously. You should also consider enlisting the services of a professional ergonomist or a specialist in office ergonomics. The cost to engineer workstations correctly is a fraction of the cost of one surgery to alleviate a repetitive motion type injury which could otherwise have been avoided. 

Good ergonomics is good business; healthy employees contribute to a healthy bottom line.