Workplace Ergonomics: What Every Business Owner Should Know
Does it really pay to invest in ergonomic office furniture and workstation design? Apparently it does, despite the persistent skepticism of some business owners and office managers. In fact, numerous studies in industrialized countries such as Australia, the Netherlands, Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom have found that work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) have shown a marked decline over the last ten years.
Workplace Ergonomics Really Matter
Work-related musculoskeletal disorders are decreasing. Why is this?
In large part because the constant change and renewal in equipment and machinery that people use at work has played a significant role. The increased awareness and focus on ergonomics in the workplace has resulted in marked and measurable results. Think of how work has changed for the people who stock grocery shelves, assemble car parts or do curbside trash collection. There has been an overall reduction in lifting, pulling and reaching work.
“Manual material handling is basically gone in many, many sectors,” according to Dr. Cameron Mustard, President of the Institute for Work & Health in Canada, “To the extent that this has happened through a deliberate effort to reduce injury risk, we could say that the reduction in injuries reflects prevention efforts.”
Some generally accepted guidelines for posture and furniture at computer workstations are, in reality myths. If rigidly followed, these misconceptions can lead to uncomfortable and costly mistakes.
Myths Concerning Workplace Ergonomics
Many companies integrate workplace ergonomics because of safety and injury issues. This is not surprising since a significant percentage of musculoskeletal injuries – between 24 and 75 percent, according to one study – are attributed to poor ergonomic conditions in the workplace.
However, implementing ergonomics is about more than simply keeping employees from getting hurt at work. It’s also about optimizing human performance. By fitting the workstation to the worker to allow a good posture, less pressure, and fewer repetitive motions, the workstation becomes more efficient and the workers feel less frustrated and fatigued. This means they are more likely to do their best work.
The International Ergonomics Association (IEA) defines ergonomics as “the scientific discipline concerned with the understanding of interactions among humans and other elements of a system, and the profession that applies theory, principles, data and methods to design in order to optimize human well-being and overall system performance”.
It further goes on to describe the purpose of ergonomics is, “to optimize human well-being and overall system performance”. Human well-being certainly implies safety, but also comfort and enjoyment. System performance implies productivity, efficiency and effectiveness.
Here are some persistent myths regarding workplace ergonomics:
Myth: Keeping correct posture at the computer eliminates discomfort and reduces injuries.
Reality: Trying to maintain perfect posture can be extremely fatiguing, especially for long periods of time. When sitting, the full force of gravity is carried by the upper body and can lead to fatigue, muscle strain, or joint pain. Prolonged, static postures reduce blood flow and deprive muscles of necessary oxygen and nutrients.
Dynamic postures, on the other hand, increase blood flow and allow for muscles to have small rest breaks when you work. So change your position frequently, and alternate sitting and standing. For instance, find an elevated work surface where you can stand and do your paperwork from time to time.
Myth: Computer operators should sit upright at the computer.
Reality: If given a choice, four out of five workers prefer to sit slightly reclined. And a slightly reclined posture is less fatiguing and easier to maintain than constantly sitting erect. Sitting slightly reclined also reduces pressure on the discs in your lower back. However, there is a difference between being slightly reclined, and slumping!
Myth: There is no proof that ergonomics programs reduce injuries.
Fact: Hundreds of companies have proven that ergonomics programs reduce injuries, cut costs, and increase productivity and employee morale. The Government Accounting Office and others have studied ergonomics programs and found them effective. More than 90 case studies showed that implementing ergonomics programs resulted in average declines in MSD rates of 70 percent.
Myth: All workers have the same ergonomic furniture needs.
Reality: Since no two workers are exactly the same as far as height, size, weight, and shape there really is no “one-size-fits-all” solution to accommodate everyone, especially an ergonomic one. The key is in purchasing task chairs, for example, with full adjustability of the seat pan, armrests, and lumbar support. Adjustability and flexible design is the first step in ensuring that workers of different builds receive adequate support.
Myth: Ergonomics are expensive and small businesses cannot afford it.
Reality: Although it is often viewed as an expense, ergonomics is actually a profitable investment that significantly reduces costs over time. By systematically reducing poor ergonomic work conditions, office managers can prevent expensive musculoskeletal disorders. MSDs account for about $1 out of every $3 in worker’s compensation costs. Aside from the direct and indirect costs of MSDs, the benefits of integrating ergonomics into all business operations include:
- Increasing work productivity and work quality
- Improving employee engagement and morale
- Increasing worker retention rates and reducing turnover
- Promoting a better safety culture
Workplace Ergonomics Provide a Great ROI
Like everything else, there are inexpensive and expensive ways to implement ergonomics in the office. For example, buying top-of-the-line leather-faced executive chairs for every employee might be excessive and even inappropriate when the same level of comfort can be achieved without the hefty price tag.
Studies have shown repeatedly and consistently that investing in workplace ergonomics is beneficial and produces value for the business. Here are some of the benefits of good ergonomics:
Reduces costs, improves productivity, improves quality and improves employee engagement.
Investing in workplace ergonomics shows your company’s commitment to safety and health as a core value. The cumulative effect of the previous four benefits of ergonomics is a stronger safety culture for your company. Healthy employees are your most valuable asset; creating and fostering the safety & health culture at your company will lead to better human performance for your organization.