Working Safe and Feeling Fine

Remember the big laugh we got watching George Jetson at his job, pushing buttons all day long and then complaining about his aching finger? Who could guess that the early 1960s cartoon would be so on target? Today’s office workers spend eight, 10, even 12 hours a day sitting at desks and keying at the computer only to go home with repetitive stress disorders like carpal tunnel syndrome or cumulative trauma disorders like serious back pain.

In fact, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) estimates that back pain costs employers a whopping $20 billion in worker’s compensation every year. Add $60 billion in indirect costs, like lost productivity, and it becomes obvious that the problem is no laughing matter. In response, academia has come up with a new science, ergonomics, to study the human body at work and rest.

The term “ergonomics” is derived from two Greek words: “erg” meaning work and “nomas” meaning natural laws. Ergonomists study human capabilities in relationship to work demands. The science has created an enormous body of studies that cutting-edge furniture companies have tapped to design the latest chairs, desks, keyboards and accessories. How can you sift through the knowledge and protect your administrative staff without busting your furniture budget?

Luckily, some of the soundest ergonomic principles don’t cost a penny and are easy to adhere to. “Frequent and regular breaks are really important for your health,” says Jennifer Hohne, corporate ergonomist for Holland, Mich.-based Haworth, Inc. She suggests that intense keyers should adhere to the 30-30-30 rule. “Every 30 minutes they should look 30 feet away from their keyboard for 30 seconds.”

But even if a person’s job doesn’t require intensive computer keying, taking frequent breaks to stretch, walk around and change position is vital. “Getting up and hanging around the water cooler is actually beneficial for workers’ health and productivity,” says Hohne. Doing quick stretches at the desk also provides a refreshing pause.

Quick Fixes for Big Problems

Sometimes a few shoulder rolls or a trip to the coffee cart just isn’t enough. If your staff’s desks are improperly set up; then any amount of work will eventually cause discomfort. “We have to look at how people work,” says John Katsafanas, director of marketing, GF Office Furniture Ltd. in Canfield, Ohio, “and then adjust the environment appropriately.” This doesn’t necessarily mean a new furniture shopping spree. Some quick fixes may solve the problems.

The first step is to find out who your administrative staff is and what they are doing. Do you have someone who is typing on the computer all day long? Do people talk on the telephone while doing something else with their hands? Do you have any especially big or small people on your staff? How are the lighting and noise levels?

For the person who is keying at the terminal all day long, a well-adjusted workstation is paramount. This means the keyboard is at a level where the typist’s wrists are flat and tipped neither up (extension) nor down (flexion). If the keyboard is too low (for example, placed on an old desk return originally designed for a typewriter), raising it with a box is an effective solution.

The monitor height can also be adjusted with monitor stands or a simple stack of books. What’s important is that the position encourages a downward gaze that is natural and relaxing to the neck. “I see people with their monitors way up high all the time,” says Hohne. “No wonder they complain of back and neck pain.”

If a chair doesn’t lower enough for a short person to work with his or her feet firmly on the ground, a box prevents dangling. Also, if a person needs to find files while on the phone, a neck rest or headset might be in order. “There are lots of solutions to ergonomic problems,” says Hohne. “The most important thing is for people to be comfortable.”

Lighting levels are an important part of worker comfort as well. “Too much light means glare on computer screens,” says Katsafanas. “Removing every other lamp and providing desk-height task lights will cut the problem.” He also suggests looking at noise levels as well. “You don’t traditionally think of noise as an ergonomic issue, but it’s all part of office comfort and productivity.”

The Latest Stuff

If you are in the market for new office furniture, the latest ergonomic offerings will certainly encourage painless productivity. One of the first places people start is with chairs. “Insist on a fully adjustable chair,” says Ken Tameling, Leap product manager at Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Steelcase. “The best ones adjust seamlessly and naturally with just a few common-sense clicks.”

Chairs should also support the worker in a variety of positions. “There are many ‘correct’ ways to sit and work,” says Hohne. “Your chair should support you whether you are sitting up straight, reclining or twisting.”

Adjustability is also the key for desks. Keypad holders should articulate up and down and side-to-side for the best results. This way comfortable work can take place in a variety of positions.

Some ergonomic furniture seems way out there at first glance but might be the right solution for your staff. Certain European chair manufacturers create seating that looks more at home on Star Trek than in an office. One company sinks the computer screen inside the desk. And more than a few companies offer split keyboards. “It’s all about individual comfort,” says Hohne.

Professional Help

Sorting out ergonomics and all of the products that go with it can be a daunting job. Professional designers and ergonomists can help you choose the right furniture for your staff. Your vendor can then help them adjust the new purchases so everyone is working safely.

If you are having trouble justifying the cost of the latest ergonomic furniture, take a look at these studies: A 1982 study by T.J. Springer saw dialogue transactions improve 10 percent and data entry improve 15 percent with the installation of new ergonomic furniture. A 1988 study by Francis and Dressel saw a 20 percent increase in performance. Finally, in 1990, a group studied by Marvin Dainoff keyed four to five percent faster and earned 20 percent more incentive pay when they switched to new ergonomic furniture.

To find an ergonomist, Hohne suggests contacting the Human Factor Ergonomist Society at 310/394-1811 or Steelcase also offers a Website with lots of information: Finally, CTD News offers information and statistics at

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