We’ve all been there – you get up from your desk at work, you bend over to pick something up, or you go to do that one thing you do at work over and over. Even though it seems like a simple, routine thing, this time you feel an intense pain. Did you do something wrong this time? Maybe. Or maybe this has been the result of a long line of little mistakes?
What is Ergonomics?
Simply put, ergonomics is the field of study that revolves around how people move and work. As we see in examples like the ones above, Even simple routine motions, when not done quite right, can cause major problems. Because of that, many people study the best way for us to do our regular activities. This may entail minor changes, like adjusting the height of our desk, or bigger differences, like reorganizing our entire office. Ergonomics can be the solution to many problems, especially helping with chronic pain, repetitive motion injuries, and workplace injuries.
One of the first things people might think of when they look at ergonomics is adaptive equipment. We have probably seen all kinds of ergonomic equipment advertised as being the “one size fits all” solution to our problems. Specialized chairs, cushions, back supports, and more are claimed to solve problems across the board. The unfortunate truth is that, just as each individual is different, each ergonomic solution needs to be specialized to fit our needs.
Benefits of ergonomics
There are a number of benefits that can come from implementing ergonomic techniques. Probably one of the most sought after benefits of ergonomics is pain relief. When looking at a situation, an ergonomic expert is able to see what may have cause existing pain. They can also see what could potentially cause further pain. This makes ergonomics an excellent option for both treating and preventing injury.
From an individual perspective, ergonomics is a great way to improve health and safety at home, at work, and overall. From a corporate perspective, ergonomics can promote safety, productivity, and a happier work environment.
The number of workplace injuries is astronomical. With a proper ergonomic program, many of these injuries can be avoided. While the most important thing to look at in employees is safety and health, every company has to look at the financial aspects as well. Every time an employee gets hurt at work, it can cost the company in many ways. Obviously, any kind of compensation that is provided will be a financial hit (indirectly for the employer through additional insurance costs). On top of that, the added costs of finding a temporary replacement, paying for any training they need, and repairing any damaged equipment can add up quickly.
With a properly developed ergonomics program, workplace injuries can be greatly reduced. Depending on the setting in which you work, this might include reorganizing a work station, adding simple equipment to make work easier, or just providing information on safer working techniques.
Here are some general tips to make a more ergonomic workplace:
Avoid repetitive motions
Of course, this is easier said than done. Many of us have jobs that include a few certain movements over and over again – reaching for something off of the printer, moving a rolling cart, or getting bills out of the cash register. Whatever our job may be, we want to avoid these repetitive motives, as they can cause over-development of certain muscles and ultimately lead to an imbalance. At the same time, these muscles can fatigue and not be able to properly do their job because we have been over-using them.
Adjust your computer
If we work at a computer, we will be staring at a screen for hours at a time. If we are not in the best position possible, this can lead to neck, back, and leg pain. As a rule of thumb, we want to make sure that our computer monitor is at eye level, meaning that we don’t have to bend our necks up or down to look at it.
At the same time, we want to make sure that our chair is adjusted so that our feet are flat on the floor, our knees are bent at a 90 angle, our hips are bent out of 90 angle, our back is straight, and our arms are comfortably at our sides. There are any number of chairs or cushions that we can buy to make our seat at work more comfortable.
Think things through
Before you start working, think about the motions you’re about to go through.
Will there be excessive bending, lifting, or twisting?
Do you have everything you need nearby?
Is this honestly a one-person job, or should you get help?
If the answer to any of those questions tells you that it could be a potentially harmful task, try to figure out a way to fix that problem. For example, do you constantly have to print files and pick them up off of the printer on the ground? That can cause a strain to your back very easily. Instead, why not raise the printer up, eliminating the need for bending? The simple task of thinking things through can make a world of difference.
Pay attention to your body
The biggest challenge of ergonomics is that every situation is different. The best way to be mindful of any adjustments you need to make is to pay close attention to how you feel. For the most part, your body will be comfortable when you use good ergonomic techniques and uncomfortable when you don’t. By noticing these things, you can avoid many injuries that can come up in your specific job.
When you’re sitting at a desk for an extended period of time, you might be able to get into the “zone” where you can work more efficiently and effectively. It can be annoying to have to break that “flow” of work, but the importance of regularly getting up and stretching can’t be stressed enough.
In under an hour, your body starts to adjust to the position that you are in. This means that the muscles in your legs and back begin to shorten to whatever position you are in. Clearly, that can be a serious problem over time.
Thankfully, we can deal with it by simply getting up from our desk and stretching every few hours. Bending over to touch our toes, bending side-to-side, and standing up straight while pushing back our shoulders can help undo some of the damage that may have been done from sitting.
The sad fact is, all too often we can get simple injuries from the basic, repetitive motions that we do. Below are listed some of the most common injuries that can be prevented through proper ergonomic techniques and some simple things that we can do to overcome them.
Carpal tunnel syndrome
This common injury affects the wrist, causing pain, numbness, and inflammation. Our hands are very complex tools, with incredible dexterity, strength, and sensitivity. In order to fit all of those mechanisms in one small package, the muscles and nerves of the hand are located in the forearm or closer to the core of our body. Nerves and tendons run from our forearm out to our fingers through what is known as the carpal tunnel, the cavity inside our wrist. With so much packed in there, any amount of inflammation or pressure can potentially cause injury to those nerves.
One of the most common causes of carpal tunnel syndrome comes from working out a computer for extended amounts of time. If we support our wrist on a hard surface and at a sharp angle, over time this can cause extra swelling an inflammation which leads to carpal tunnel syndrome.
How can we prevent this? Simply put, be mindful of how are wrists are positioned when we’re working out of computer. Some people have found gel inserts that lay on their desk to be beneficial, but others feel that they don’t make that big of a difference. You will have to try it out and see what works for you.
Easily one of the most common injuries that can last for years to come, back pain can come from any number of jobs. When we put improper pressure on the muscles in our back, they can become swollen and agitated. Usually, the swelling can put pressure on the nerves around them, causing any number of nerve pain syndromes. An individualized ergonomic assessment will help you to figure out how you can prevent your back pain, but here are some general guidelines.
First and foremost, bend with your knees whenever possible. You might have heard the phrase “lift with your legs, not with your back.” This is an excellent rule of thumb. The muscles in our legs are designed to support us on their own, so they are much larger and stronger. On the other hand, the muscles in our back are designed for specific, smaller motions. When we rely on them to support us, this increased pressure will cause swelling in pain.
Another concept to keep in mind is simply modesty. Even though it may take longer and not be as convenient, asking for help when we need it will make for a safer job. Even if you feel you may be able to do the task at hand, don’t hesitate to ask for help.
Inflammation can affect any joint or tendon. When a tendon has added pressure put on it, and can react by getting inflamed and tender to the touch. This is known as tendonitis.
Because of the diversified nature of tendonitis, one simple solution doesn’t exist to prevent it entirely. A good general principle is to look at our joints and how they move. For example, the elbow can only move into directions, bending up and straightening out. if we try to put some kind of rotational force on our elbow, it will not go well. Instead, our shoulders or forearms can be used for some slight rotation, or even moving our entire body can help.
When we’re dealing with inflammation, ice is one of the primary solutions (at least in the short-term). It can be tempting to put a hot pack on the inflamed area, and it feels good in the moment. Later, though, the heat will only cause more swelling, more inflammation, and more pain and stiffness to the area. Ice will work in the opposite way, reducing inflammation and swelling.
Final Word on Ergonomics
Of course, there is no universal solutions that will solve all of our workplace problems. An ergonomic evaluation is irreplaceable when it comes to dealing with workplace injuries. Sometimes, repeated visits are needed to implement new strategies and tryout new ideas. The most important thing when dealing with ergonomics is to be open-minded and willing to try things that we may not have thought of before. This can help us reduce our pain, maximize our efficiency, and foster a safer workplace.