November 2nd, 2010 5:41pm - Posted By: Heather McWilliams, BCBR
October 29, 2010 --
ERIE — For workers tethered to a desk by a phone, keyboard, computer and other modern office equipment, sitting down on the job can be a real pain. A pain in the neck, in the back or in any other joint caused by improper position or equipment use. For many the solution can be simple: stand up.
“Our bodies are not made to be static, especially in a seated position,” said Nick McElhiney, owner of Erie-based Ergonomic Evolution LLC. As a certified ergonomic assessment specialist, McElhiney evaluates how humans interact with their work station and suggests changes to prevent or reverse injuries caused by everyday tasks such as talking on the phone or typing on a keyboard.
“In a nut shell, I teach people how to sit at a desk,” McElhiney said, and more and more frequently he teaches people not to just sit but to stand.
“Old school ergonomics was about getting people in this perfect position and then keeping them there,” McElhiney said. Now ergonomists teach people that sitting puts more pressure on the back and creates an unnatural spinal alignment. Unrelieved sitting or improper sitting pushes the hips and neck forward creating pressure where none is meant to be, and recent research shows that varying position or standing can improve such problems.
“When we’re standing we don’t need as much support because our bodies go into a naturally supportive state,” McElhiney said. Standing also improves blood flow and burns calories, with some studies showing a decrease in heart disease for workers who stand for part of the day, McElhiney said.
He estimates between time at an office desk, behind the wheel and on the couch in front of the television, modern workers spend one-third of their lives sitting down. Standing work stations can help alleviate injuries associated with working from a chair.
Standing work stations provide desk space, including room for a computer monitor, a keyboard and mouse platform and space for other typical desk items such as a phone or stapler. Adjustable to a person’s height, the stations allow people to work just as they would when seated only standing up.
“Most people would choose it if they could,” McElhiney said, but he warns standing all day at a work station can create its own set of problems and an ideal desk would adjust to a seated position as well. With sit-stand desks running at $1,500, McElhiney said cost makes a complete sit-stand system financially impractical for many. McElhiney offers an attachment converting a standard seated desk to a sit-stand model for a third of that cost, about $500.
“They do have some limitations, but it’s a low-cost fix that does improve ergonomic fit,” McElhiney said. Even standing a few times an hour to stretch, vary your position and refocus can go a long way to preventing repetitive use injuries, he said.
Ergonomics encompasses a huge range of study looking at interactions between humans and their environment, said Michael Rodriguez, treasurer for the local chapter of the Human Factors and Ergonomic Society and a senior human factors engineer at InfoPrint Solutions Co. in Boulder.
“A lot of it started during World War II when the military was having problems with certain types of aircraft pilots crashing,” Rodriguez said. crashes which only occurred with certain model planes. A careful study concluded the flap and landing gear controls felt similar to pilots, causing accidental landing gear retraction or flap movement when landing and taking off. Redesigning the controls so the flap lever was flat and the landing gear control round and rubber solved the problem.
Ergonomic injuries — sometimes known as musculoskeletal injuries — often stem from repetitive motions, poor position, improper equipment use or improperly fitted equipment, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics. While most office injuries aren’t life threatening like accidentally retracted landing gear, they do cause thousands of work absences each year, according to Bureau figures.
They are also a leading cause of workman compensation claims, said ergonomist and physical therapist for Boulder Community Hospital, Martha Spaulding. She estimates 75 percent or more of ergonomic injuries could be resolved using proper fit and variable positions, increasing productivity and saving employers money in the long run. Spaulding evaluates work sites at the hospital to stop problems before they start.
“It’s harder to go back once you’ve created a real chronic kind of problem,” Spaulding said. “It’s cheaper to fix it ahead of time.”
For employers who bring in an ergonomist to prevent or reverse ergonomic injuries there’s a psychological benefit for employees, too, McElhiney said.
“When an employer provides some care for an employee they feel valued and cared for. If they’re healthy, they do better work.”
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