Ergonomics: Staying Healthy at Work
Beyond Numbers · June 2003
By Sarah Stephen
Does your back hurt?
Do you have a crick in your neck? Headaches? Trouble concentrating? Some of these symptoms may be related to how you sit at your desk and how your workstation is set up. Yes, manual labour may be an obvious source of potential injury, but the reality is that you risk injury even if you never lift anything more than your coffee mug. Repetitive activities or habits, like sitting incorrectly day after day, can create serious physical problems. The good news is that many of these problems can be relieved with ergonomics.
According to the Workers' Compensation Board (WCB), ergonomics is "the science of adapting work processes and conditions to fit the physical capabilities of workers" - in other words, making your desk fit you, instead of the other way around.
To prepare for our recent office move, the Institute conducted its own ergonomics workshop. We'd now like to share with you some of the new, ergonomically correct advice we received.
Fortunately, with preventative measures, exercise, and treatment, most physical pain incurred at work can be reduced or even eliminated. But these measures require you to pay attention to the signals your body may be giving you.
"Pain is a warning system, so it shouldn't be ignored," explains Registered Kinesiologist and Ergonomic Consultant Chris Back (yes, that is his real name), formerly with CBI Physiotherapy and Rehabilitation Centre in Abbotsford. "Treat the pain, but more importantly, modify your behaviours to prevent it from recurring."
According to Back, many desk injuries are the result of repetitive motion. Over time, as you continually repeat a motion like clicking your mouse, the muscles involved fatigue, resulting in pain that - if ignored - may ultimately prevent you from performing the work altogether.
Preventative measures are also the easiest and least expensive. "Simple things, like regular exercise and stretching, help keep the body physically fit," says Back, who cautions that our muscles have a threshold for activity - it's once we exceed this threshold that problems begin. According to Back, the more physically fit you are, the higher your threshold, which clearly indicates the importance of regular and varied physical activity outside of work.
Stretching & varying activity
This doesn't mean you have to start training for a marathon to prevent repetitive strain injuries - simple behavioural modifications like standing up every hour to stretch for 30 to 60 seconds at a time can make a big difference. Chris Back suggests doing back extension stretches to counter the flexion created while sitting ("flexion" Is the act or condition of a limb or joint being bent.) He also recommends taking longer breaks to allow for a series of stretches: "This helps blood and oxygen flow through your muscles, which is very important to help minimize the rate of fatigue." (For some stretches, check out websites listed on this page.)
Changing the type of activity you're doing can also help. After typing for a while, why not make a few phone calls to give your eyes, hands, and wrists a rest? Or alternate which hand controls the mouse, thereby giving the wrist muscles in your regular mousing hand a chance to relax.
Ensuring your workstation is set up to fit you properly will also help reduce the possibility for muscle strain. "It's important that people know how to use the equipment they have properly," Back says.
To help you set up your workspace, here's a short quiz, based on information from the WCB's website at: http://ergonomics.healthandsafetycentre.org/s/Home.asp
- Is your mouse adjacent to your keyboard?
Are your wrists flat while you type?
Are your elbows between 90 and 110 degrees when your fingers are on the middle row of your keyboard? Is your keyboard located directly in front of you?
When seated, can you fit two to four fingers between the edge of the seat and the back of your knees?
Is your monitor directly in front of you? Is the top menu bar at eye level? Is your monitor approximately an arm's length away?
Are frequently used items (phone, reference books, telescope) within an arms reach from the seated position?
Do you hold your phone or use a headset while talking?
If you're typing from a document, is it placed directly in front of you?
Is your mouse on the same level as your keyboard?
Does your chair have good lumbar support? Do you sit with your bottom touching the back of the chair?
If you answered "yes" to all of these questions, you're probably set up properly (and comfortably). But if you answered "no" to any of these questions, you may need to make some modifications. Here's why:
Your mouse and keyboard (questions 1, 2, and 9): Your keyboard should be horizontal or slightly negatively sloped. Ensure your wrists are in a neutral position, and NOT resting on the desk surface or wrist pad while typing - the risk of injury increases the greater the angle you move out of a neutral position. (A neutral position is about halfway through a joint's range of motion.) Be sure to use the wrist pad only when not typing.
Your chair (questions 3, 4, and 10): Adjust your chair height until your elbows are at 90-110 degrees and your wrists are neutral while working. When sitting down, back into your chair (don't sit on the end and slide in). Your back should be touching the back of the seat to ensure adequate support and to allow your back muscles to relax while you're seated.
Your monitor (questions 5 and 8): If the top menu bar is not at eye level, raise or lower the monitor using a monitor stand or phone books. Your monitor should be positioned 18-30" away (approximately an arm's length) to prevent eye strain. If you encounter a lot of glare, try tilting your monitor down, positioning it perpendicular to the window, closing the blinds, or getting an anti-glare screen (glass is better than mesh because mesh screens can collect dust, obscuring the image.).
Frequently-used items (question 6 and 7): These should be located near you. The less you need to reach, the better. Position the things you use throughout the day closest to you. If you spend much time on the phone, consider a headset, which will allow you to free up your hands to do other, more important things while on the phone. (Internet Mah Jong, anyone?)
Most of the above changes can be made simply and for little cost. Back suggests making one or two modifications at a time, then trying them out for a few days, rather than making a lot of changes at once. "This will limit your frustration," he explains, "and it's easier to make slow changes."
Even if your desk or workstation is already set up ergonomically, you should adjust some of its components regularly. Learn all of your chair's adjustments, for instance, and try adjusting them throughout the day. This is especially important if you wear shoes of different heights from day to day - the best chair height for a woman's sensible shoes might not work for two-inch heels. Even if you wear the same shoes every day, you should adjust your chair periodically to prevent your body from becoming accustomed to the same position.
A final word
Levels of repetitive strain injuries have risen steadily over the past decade or so, as more and more of us have become "desk monkeys," and according to the WCB, 80% of North Americans will encounter back pain in their lifetime. The old adage remains true: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. But don't lose heart if you're already experiencing workplace pain - ergonomics may well be the cure you're looking for.
The advice we offer here is for your reference only. If you're experiencing pain, don't self-diagnose - consult a trained medical Professional.
Looking for some stretches to prevent work-related injury? Check out the following websites, and be sure to check this month's Web Works for news about stretch-prompting software!
Staying healthy at work extends beyond your physical well-being. It also requires that you take care of your mental and emotional health.
If you or someone in your family is having difficulty managing stress, consider seeking private counselling through the ICABC Assistance Program at Interlock.
Interlock: ICABC Members/Students' Assistance Program
Interlock provides a confidential and professional counselling service for CAs, CA students, and their family members. This service is funded by the ICABC.
Interlock is available to provide assistance for a wide variety of personal and professional concerns, including the following: relationship, family, and parenting issues; managing personal or work-related stress; balancing work and family; anxiety and depression; and addiction.
To arrange a confidential appointment to discuss any issues, contact Interlock at:
(Lower Mainland/Fraser Valley)
(Anywhere in Canada)