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Office Ergonomics

Learning Objectives

  • Define, and explain the purpose of, ergonomics.
  • Define musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).
  • Identify the MSD risk factors associated with office work.
  • Identify MSD symptoms and stages.
  • Describe MSD treatment options.
  • Describe what office workers can do to help prevent MSDs.
  • Describe what employers can do to help prevent MSDs.

Available in English, Spanish

35 minutes

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According to the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), industries with the highest musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) rates include health care, transportation, warehousing, retail, and wholesale trade and construction. Each year, musculoskeletal disorder (MSDs) cases account for around 33% of all worker injury and illness.

Ergonomics is the study of the physiological interaction between the worker and the work environment. The goal of ergonomics is to reduce the risk of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) by adapting the work to fit the person instead of forcing the person to adapt to the work. The term “ergonomics” refers to making the workplace conducive to the comfort and productivity of the employee. Applying office ergonomics principles helps workers avoid on-the-job illness and injury and improves worker satisfaction through measures that provide greater comfort, helping people to perform assigned tasks more naturally.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) cost employers over $20 billion per year in worker’s compensation and medical expenses.

Because back injuries are common across nearly all professions, one of the most important things you can do to prevent MSDs is to maintain a neutral posture while seated at your workstation. A neutral posture is a comfortable posture in which your joints are naturally aligned. Working with the body in a neutral position reduces stress and strain on the muscles, tendons, and musculoskeletal system, and therefore reduces your risk of developing MSDs.

Tips to keep a neutral office ergonomic position:

  • Keep your head level or tilted slightly downward. Keep your work in front of you so that you are looking straight ahead.
  • Sit with your shoulders relaxed, not elevated, hunched, or rotated forward.
  • Keep your elbows close to your sides and bent at about a 90-degree angle, not extended in front of your body. Keep your wrists straight, not bent up, down, or to the side.
  • Sit with your entire body upright or leaning slightly back. Use the chair’s backrest to support your lower back, or lumbar curve.
  • Sit with your knees at the same level or slightly below the level of your hips. Use a well-padded seat to reduce the pressure points along the backs of your thighs and knees. Make sure your feet are comfortably supported either by the floor or by a footrest.
  • Although your job tasks and work schedule may be largely determined by your employer, there are actions you can take to reduce MSD risks while working within your job requirements and schedule.

The first action you can take is to alternate between tasks. If your job largely consists of data entry, word processing, spreadsheet analysis, or another task that requires you to sit at your computer workstation for long periods of time, but you do have a few other job tasks that are more mobile, try to intersperse those tasks throughout your workday. Those tasks might include photocopying, delivering files to another coworker, making coffee, or picking up sandwiches for a lunch meeting.

You may also be able to turn a sedentary task into a mobile task. For example, if you need to ask a coworker a question or set up an appointment, consider walking over to the person’s desk rather than calling or sending an email. If you need to think about how to solve a work-related problem, walk down the hallway while you think. Studies have shown that the more we move, the lower our likelihood not only of developing MSDs, but also of developing debilitating conditions like circulatory problems, a reduction in muscle mass, and heart disease. You can reduce the risk of developing an MSD caused by sedentary work by taking short but frequent stretch breaks throughout the day. There are a variety of stretches that you can perform to prevent symptoms and reduce pain.

Treatment of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) involves several approaches. One approach to treating MSDs is to avoid the activities causing injury. This may require limiting certain types of work tasks, or wearing a splint to support the joint or restrict movement. Applying heat and ice seems to relieve pain and may accelerate the repair process. Heat increases blood flow and provides pain relief for minor injuries. Ice reduces both pain and swelling. Exercising may be an appropriate treatment for MSDs, because it promotes circulation and increases strength and fitness. However, people suffering from MSDs should consult a physical therapist before exercising. Exercises can aggravate an existing condition if not appropriately designed. Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen and naproxen, can reduce pain and inflammation resulting from MSDs.

Cumulative trauma disorders (CTDs) come from physical demands that exceed our maximum capacity; that put strain on tendons, muscles, nerves, joints, ligaments, cartilage or the spine; or that disregard environmental factors like heat, humidity, noise and glare which can cause stress. CTDs are the result of an accumulation of stress factors involving repetitive, forceful, or prolonged exertions; frequent or heavy lifting, pushing, pulling, or carrying of heavy objects; or prolonged awkward postures. Carpal tunnel syndrome is a commonly cited issue alleviated by a bit of attention to ergonomics.

Course Outline
  • Introduction
  • MSD Risk Factors Common to Office Workers
  • MSD Symptoms, Stages, and Treatments
  • What You Can Do to Prevent MSDs
  • What Employers Can Do to Prevent MSDs
Regulations
  • Ergonomic Guidelines for Arranging a Computer Workstation, Cornell University Ergonomics Web, October 2012
  • Adult Heath, Slide Show: Office Stretches, Mayo Clinic, December 2010
  • Computer Workstation Ergonomics, Center for Disease Control (CDC), March 2010
  • Work-Related Musculoskeletal Disorders, Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, December 2005
  • Computer Workstations, Occupational Health and Safety Organization (OSHA), August 2003
  • Office Ergonomics: Practical Solutions for a Safer Workplace, Prepared by Washington State Department of Labor and Industries, February 2002