Some of the most common injuries for people working in an office setting are related to the fact that most of their day is spent seated at a desk and working on a computer. This makes them prone to musculoskeletal disorders such as carpal tunnel syndrome, muscle strain and lower back injuries. However many of these could be avoided by practising good ergonomics.
Ergonomics deals with reducing the risk of injury in the workplace while improving worker performance and productivity. It involves identifying tasks that may lead to injuries, developing the design of products used in the workplace, and encouraging practices that avoid injury.
Ergonomic Risk Factors
Some tasks have a high risk of musculoskeletal disorders, and there are some common elements present in each of these tasks. These common elements are known as ergonomic risk factors and include the following:
Repeating the same motions throughout the day can cause damage to joints and surrounding tissue. The general term for injuries caused by repetitive movement is repetitive strain injury (RSI). Repetitive actions in an office environment can include typing on a keyboard, clicking a mouse, or flipping through paperwork.
Awkward Positions and Postures
An awkward position is one the requires a posture that bends joints into positions where they are more likely to become injured. An office worker can move into an awkward posture by cradling a phone between the ear and shoulder, slouching in their work chair, or bending at the waist when lifting a load, for example when placing paperwork on a low shelf or loading paper into a printer at floor level.
Static Loading or Sustained Exertions
Static loading occurs when muscles hold the body in a fixed position for an extended period of time, which can cause muscle tension and lead to circulation problems. Sustained exertions are a type of static loading that occurs when continuously applying force for long periods. For example, sitting without making any movements for long periods, or keeping your head still while looking at a monitor.
Some office tasks require a moderate amount of force to be applied to small muscles which can result in muscle and ligament strains, swelling and fatigue. Examples include pounding on a keyboard to type or grasping heavy folders.
Mechanical Contact Stress
This risk factor occurs when hard or sharp surfaces or objects press into a person’s soft tissues, for example their tendons, nerves or blood vessels. This contact can result in serious injury if performed over long periods of time. Resting your wrists on the edge of a desk while typing, sitting in a chair that puts pressure on the back of the occupant’s thighs, and leaning elbows on a hard surface are examples of behaviours that can lead to contact stress.
The ability to adjust equipment is key to reducing strain. Chairs, work surfaces, monitor stands, and other office equipment should be adjustable. Although ergonomic equipment can be expensive, it is a wise investment in terms of preventing employee absence due to injury, reduced work production, and in the worst cases claims for compensation.
It is also essential to train workers in how to adjust the equipment correctly and that they know the best ergonomic setup for their tasks. For example, an office chair should be adjustable for height and tilt to enable a working position that allows the worker to sit back in the chair with their feet resting on the ground and their thighs positioned horizontally at about the same level as their hips. Armrests should be adjustable so that elbows can be positioned near the waist.
Best Practices – Posture
A lot of poor posture results from having equipment positioned incorrectly with seating. Place keyboards and work surfaces so that repeated stretching or reaching is unnecessary. A computer mouse should always be used beside the keyboard, not on a different level as it can lead to shoulder and neck injuries. Generally, a work desk should be at elbow level when sitting. A work surface holding a computer keyboard and mouse should be about 1 to 2 inches above the thighs, and the keyboard should be centred in front of the body.
Although working with a computer monitor does not damage your eyes, spending a significant amount of time working at a computer can cause eye strain. Eyes can become dry and irritated, and workers may begin having trouble focusing. Minimise eye strain by reducing screen glare, either by adjusting the monitor or using a glare reduction filter on the screen. If the worker wears glasses, it is possible to purchase a pair that includes a glare-reducing layer.
Correct positioning of monitors can also reduce strain. Monitors should be at a height that is slightly below eye level and 20-26 inches from the eyes of the worker. Avoid positioning monitors opposite open windows. Close blinds or shades if this is unavoidable.
A document holder is also recommended for workers who have to type from hard copy frequently. They reduce the need for your eyes to change focus as you look from the document to the monitor, and they also reduce neck strain caused by repeatedly looking down to the desktop and back to the screen.
Resting your eyes and allowing them to focus on things at varying distances can help reduce strain and fatigue. If possible schedule at least a 10-minute break away from a monitor for every hour spent on the computer.
An office may seem safe compared to some workplaces, but there are potential hazards present in the modern office, especially where workers spend time on computers. Identifying potential risks, using appropriate equipment and following best practices can produce a safer working environment and prevent long term injury.
New Broom Training offer consultancy services and can advise on H&S risk assessments.