The importance of ergonomic postures and principles, and the workplace exercises that support them, are self evident once the initial stages of the ergonomics improvement program has begun. This was covered in our previous workplace ergonomics and injury prevention article where the process of assessment and benefits of an ergonomic program were discussed.
Using examples of posture, we will be better able to illustrate some of the principles involved in ergonomics and how the use of workplace exercises can be used proactively to support the aim of a healthier work environment. There are some basic principles to adhere to when looking at the workspace through ergonomic eyes. These are the things that a physiotherapist will also be taking note of when assessing people within their working environment.
Posture principles of workplace ergonomics
Keep a neutral and balanced posture
This is when the joints of the body are not bent and the spine is properly aligned rather than twisted. Regardless of whether you are sitting or standing, maintaining the ’S’curve in the spinal column is ideal as opposed to having a curved or bent back. When sitting in a slouched posture or bending at back to pick something up rather than squatting, 50% more load is placed on the lumbar disks. As the neck bones are part of the spine they are subject to the same requirements and need to be kept aligned and neutral rather than twisted or bent.
Having your elbows at your sides, shoulders relaxed and hands in the same plane as your forearm are some ways to keep a neutral joint posture. Lifting elbows, having your shoulders pulled forward or having a bent wrist can put a lot of stress on the body.
It is also worth keeping in mind that these posture principles also apply when carrying out workplace exercises.
Creating a comfort zone
With a neutral and balanced posture in mind, this takes into consideration the zone within which a person will move, ensuring objects are within easy reach and that objects that are moved about stay within this zone, to minimise excessive reaching.
For example the semi circle that your arms make as you comfortably reach out should contain all the items you need to work. Less frequently used and lighter items would be just inside this reach zone, such as a stapler or screwdriver, whilst the most frequently used items would be in range of the forearm, such as a computer mouse or control stick.
When lifting this control zone still applies, where an object is kept close to the body, and held as if shaking someone’s hand. In some instances this shaking hands posture is ideal, for example when working at a keyboard, yet when heavier work is done, a work surface lower than elbow height may be applicable. The use of standing platforms or adjustable tables and chairs makes having the correct work height more achievable.
Comfort factors specific to your workspace
Depending on the environment that is specific to your job, there are some other factors to consider that will improve your workplace comfort.
Ensuring there is enough clearance within the workspace so that the body is not cramped and that the chances of bumping into objects is removed is an extension of this comfort zone. Similarly, tasks that involve movement within a workplace should have their sight unhindered so that nothing blocks their view.
Another less obvious factor may simply be looking at the type of lighting that is used, as too little or too much can cause eye fatigue and headaches. Glare from computer screens or from a bright background within a work station and conversely working in shadow or a poorly lit room, are taken into consideration as part of the overall ergonomics of a workplace.
Lessen the force on body joints
The reduction of excessive force on the body is one of the main aims of workplace ergonomics as it can help avoid fatigue from increased muscle effort and any injuries as a result. Identifying the best ways to reduce the use of excessive force may be such things as making sure trolleys and floor surfaces they are wheeled on are in good repair, adding handles to objects that need to be moved, or introducing special equipment. This may come in the form of hoists, counter balance systems, powered equipment and ergonomic tools in aid of reducing unnecessary effort and exertion – which can be saved for the workplace exercises later on.
More subtle effects of stress and vibration
A more subtle example of forces upon the body can be through the continuous contact or rubbing between the soft tissue of the body and hard or sharp objects, known as contact stress. This excessive pressure on small areas of the body can have an adverse effect over time. This can be something as simple as resting your forearms against the hard edge of a table, having a chair that is too high and digs into the back of the knees, standing on a concrete surface or using tools that are hard on the hands. Cushioning in one form or another, supported with other good ergonomic practices, will address this contact stress.
Another form of subtle stress is in the form of excessive vibration, through tools and machinery that form a significant part of a person’s job. Identifying this common problem as part of an ergonomic evaluation can avoid conditions to the hands such as carpel tunnel syndrome or tendinitis. It can also reduce fatigue, for example in fork lift truck operators working over rough ground. Vibration can easily be addressed by further cushioning devices or tools that have been dampened.
Reducing repetitive movements
This is applies to repetitive motions you make throughout the day or as part of work processes such as a production line. Where this cannot be reduced through the mechanisation of tasks , then layouts and equipment can be altered to reduce load and incorporated with the previously mentioned best practices for posture and workplace comfort.
Regular movement and stretching
We are designed to move, so working in the same position or awkward posture for an extended period of time will result in fatigue and discomfort, otherwise described as static load. This can be addressed once again with modifications to the workplace such as incorporating a footrest for those standing at counters, or by taking regular breaks with which to move freely and stretch. This will get the blood moving and reset muscular balance and posture. Incorporating a daily workplace exercises and dynamic stretching routine as part of an overall positive work culture will benefit the health and morale of all.
Workplace exercises to support your ergonomic efforts
Essential to a proactive economics program, workplace exercises enable strength, stability and flexibility to be developed, allowing for healthier and more resilient people within the ergonomically optimised environment.
From a management level there are many other principles that can be incorporated with the collaboration of a physiotherapist and the key people within the work environment. This could involve a roster of job rotation and scheduled stretch breaks, through to improving work organisation and providing ergonomic education. Part of this education will ideally involve training sessions, and from this exercises applicable to the jobs being carried out can be learnt and then displayed in posters or handouts as a point of reference.
Ergonomic workspaces combined with the physical gains of workplace exercises can offer the most immediate improvements to people within the business. Yet in the long term the overall efforts of workplace ergonomic improvements can have more far reaching benefits of a reliable, consistent and efficient workplace that has a positive impact on all.