You may have encountered ergonomics either in your work or personal life before. Perhaps it has helped you work with less pain or has improved your overall wellness in a preventative approach instead! Or maybe you have purchased a really cool item that has allowed you to work safer and faster. This post aims to increase your awareness to the many perspectives in the field of ergonomics today.
Let’s start with the definition of ergonomics. The International Ergonomics Association (IEA) represents the ‘gold standard’ for practicing ergonomics professionals. The entire definition is below:
“Ergonomics (or human factors) is 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. Practitioners of ergonomics and ergonomists contribute to the design and evaluation of tasks, jobs, products, environments and systems in order to make them compatible with the needs, abilities and limitations of people. Ergonomics helps harmonizing things that interact with people in terms of people’s needs, abilities and limitations.”
Simply put, when conducting an ergonomics assessment, the assessor evaluates the workstation always with the user in mind. And, by doing so, improves safety, comfort, and performance.
I am here to tell you today that the ergonomics profession doesn’t get to put a gold seal of approval on a everything that the market identifies as ergonomic. This can be very misleading! You have probably seen many examples of this from your everyday life. This past weekend at Home Depot I think I counted up to 5 different products that claimed to have an ergonomic design but after inspecting them I was convinced that they could be doing more harm than good. Even googling ‘ergonomic handle‘ will produce a wide variety of results, many of which are not optimally designed for the user. So just because something says that it is ergonomic doesn’t mean that it actually is!
Let’s shift this discussion to the office. In today’s world there are just so many different perspectives in office ergonomics, well-being, and overall prevention. There are many different health professions that are also in the mix. These professions can include chiropractors, physiotherapists, personal trainers, and occupational therapists. The interesting thing with this is that each profession has a slightly different scope of practice in assessing risk and implementing solutions; they can all approach office workstation ergonomics in different ways. Some professions may recommend an intensive stretching strategy, focusing in on where you have your discomfort. So, when you have a flare up of symptoms, you know the exact stretches to do that will make you feel better. Other professions may look at your sitting posture as more as a personal choice, meaning if you were to lean forward to type that this approach may focus on improving your personal habits rather than adjusting your workstation to fit you perfectly. A perfectly adjusted workstation will always prevent awkward postures (for example, leaning forward to type). The truth is that focusing just on maintaining an ideal posture may be missing the true cause of discomfort – a workstation that is not optimally fit for the user.
The best approach is always a focus on the overall fit between the user and their workstation. I base this on the thousands of ergonomic assessments that I have completed over the past 10 years – the best value in ergonomics is focusing on adjusting the workstation to meet the needs, stature, and discomfort of the user. By adjusting the workstation to fit the user, many times awkward and painful postures can be eliminated. The key in ergonomics is to focus on the root cause of the user’s discomfort, not merely treating their symptoms. Treating the symptoms (like in stretching programs) can lead to less impactful results.
What to look for in Office Ergonomic Assessments:
- Identification of observed ergonomic risk
- Including forceful postures, awkward postures and repetitive postures
- Associate observed ergonomic risk with any reported discomfort
- For example: does wrist pain correlate with the observed awkward wrist postures?
- Associate observed ergonomic risk with workstation elements that need to be improved
- For example: workstation height, type of devices (mouse) used, etc
- Associate observed ergonomic risk with any user habits
- For example: poor mousing habits of moving the wrist side-to-side
- Classification of the ergonomic risk
- Does the severity of the identified ergonomic risk warrant changes/adjustments?
- If so, should be ranked according to priority
- Workstation adjustments are clearly communicated to user
- Allows the user to make these adjustments in the future