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Why ergonomics must be part of any workplace wellness plan

The right ergonomic setup is key to prevent workplace pain and injury.

George Rudy/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Workplace wellness in most organizations centres around health promotion activity or policy development to support healthy behaviour and improve health outcomes in the workplace.

A "workplace wellness" Google search reveals a range of programs focused on fitness, weight management, smoking cessation, stress management, work-life balance and occasionally flexible work scheduling. These are legitimately important aspects targeted at improving specific health outcomes.

It is important to realize that the average office worker spends over 65 per cent of their time at work in a sedentary seated position. No doubt you have seen the media campaigns touting the health concerns related to sedentary behaviour, some going as far as labelling sitting as the new smoking.

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Prolonged sitting has been associated with cardiovascular problems, increases in musculoskeletal discomfort, and decreases in concentration and productivity. Improper sitting and work station setup has been associated with an increase in musculoskeletal pain and injury (MSI) in the neck, shoulders, arms, wrists, legs and lower back. MSI are associated with the wear and tear on the muscles, tissues, ligaments and joints of the body. It is for these reasons that office ergonomics should be on the workplace wellness program menu.

Ergonomics is the science of matching the work to the worker. In an office environment, a major focus would be insuring that employee workstations fit the worker – not the employee made to fit the workstation.

To design a healthy employee work station properly requires an understanding of the limitations of the human body, especially in terms of muscle and soft tissue fatigue. Again, a Google search on "office ergonomics" leads you to resources on the proper configuration of computer workstations to promote a neutral sitting posture aimed at reducing muscle and soft tissue pain. This is a great place to start, but does not replace the knowledge of an experienced ergonomist to ensure that individual limitations and pre-existing health conditions are accommodated for properly.

Here are some examples of the most common office ergonomic challenges I encounter when consulting with organizations. The first is the desk. The working height of a standard desk is 30 inches, for which we expect it be comfortable for both the 5-foot-2-inch and a 6-foot-2-inch employee. But the reality is that this standard desk height is appropriate for the 6-foot-2-inch employee. The average female is 5-foot-4-inches, which would suggest that the standard 30-inch working height is too high for the majority of female workers in the office.

When the working height is too high, the employee will adopt a posture where the wrists are extended when keyboarding, the neck is extended, shoulders are hunched and back is flexed forward off the chair. These postures increase muscle and soft tissue fatigue, eventually leading to pain when the postures are sustained or repetitive.

It is critical to consider adjustability in office furniture rather than approaches that fit the employee to the workstation. For example, a keyboard tray is often installed to lower the working height for the hands, arms and creating a neutral sitting posture while keyboarding. Meanwhile, the monitor remains on the desktop 4-inches to 5-inches higher, requiring the neck to be extended to properly engage the screen.

Fitting the workstation to the employee would require lowering the desk to the appropriate working height so that the keyboard and mouse are on the desktop along with the monitor resulting in a neutral posture not only for the arms and shoulders but also for the neck and back.

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This seated working height cannot be neglected when considering sit-to-stand workstations. It is important to investigate how far the workstation can be lowered in the seated position as many do not lower past 27-inches which is still too high for most women.

The second ergonomic challenge is the chair. The majority of employees who I assess have what would be considered an ergonomic chair based on its features of adjustability, arm and back support. In order to acquire the health benefits of an ergonomic chair, it is necessary to consider the physical size of the employee.

For example, a seat pan that is too wide or too short, results in the inability to engage the armrests and backrest, respectively. The backrest and the armrest serve to take the load off the back, shoulder, neck and arm muscles. An improperly fitting chair is little better than sitting on a stool if the employee is not engaging the features of the chair meant to provide a break for the muscles and soft tissues of the body.

Most office chair manufacturers have chairs that are designed in different sizes and it is important to engage an ergonomist to determine the proper fit based on each individual's body configuration.

These are only a few select examples of the associated musculoskeletal health benefits of proper office ergonomics. In consultation with an experienced ergonomist, office ergonomics as part of the workplace wellness menu can have an positive impact on employee musculoskeletal health.

Dr. Wayne Albert is Dean of Kinesiology at the University of New Brunswick.

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The University of New Brunswick is a leader in Occupational Health, Safety and Wellness online education offering a suite of courses designed to teach participants how to achieve optimal personal and workplace wellness. Click here to learn more.

UNB is a sponsor of The Globe's Solving Workplace Challenges summit, which is on March 20 in Toronto, where the Employee Recommended Workplace Awards will be handed out. Click here to find out more or to register for the event.

Companies can pre-register for the 2019 Employee Recommended Workplace Awardsat www.employeerecommended.com.

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