Workplace Ergonomics

By Dr. Alan Ali, D.C. –


As fall has come and with the winter season on the way, for most of us that means the pace quickens and the hours in the office lengthen.  Thus as the workload increases, so do repetitive actions like answering the phone or using a keyboard or mouse.  These routine work tasks can add a level of physical stress to the emotional and mental stress of trying to get the job done.  Repetitive strain injuries like those encountered at work have dramatically increased in the last two decades due to the increasing reliance on technology in the workplace.  Extended work with computers can lead to muscular fatigue and discomfort, usually in the back, arms, shoulders and neck.  If you use a computer for prolonged periods of time in awkward postures, this can increase the risk of musculoskeletal injuries (injuries related to the joints, muscles, tendons or nerves), which is especially common when the intensity of the computer work increases.  The source of fatigue, pain or discomfort produced by this poor posture may in fact be due to poor workstation layout, lighting, or even the type of work tasks being performed.  Thus, having a proper workplace set-up is an easy and helpful way to prevent these types of injuries from happening and is why the study of ergonomics (the interaction between worker and job demands and how work affects the worker) has been developed.  Here we’ll discuss things you should look for if you feel like you may be suffering from repetitive strain injuries and some simple ergonomic tips that you can use to prevent them from occurring at work!

Computer workstation tips:

If you are a computer user, here are some general recommendations for how to properly set-up your workstation:
1)  The monitor should be set at a height so that your neck will be straight (viewing distance between operator’s eyes and screen about 40-74cm), ideally with a viewing angle between 10-30° below the line of sight.  Tuck your chin in and do not bend forward when looking down and forward.
2)  While seated, your shoulders should be relaxed and low, keep your elbows tucked in and they should be bent between 90-120°, with arms hanging naturally at the sides and on armrests.  Upper arms should be between vertical and 20° forward, forearms between horizontal and 20° up.
3)  Keep your hands in line with the forearms, so the wrists are straight, not bending up, down, or to either side.
4)  Keep hips, knees and ankle joints opened slightly (more than 90°), feet are flat on the floor or on a footrest (if necessary to support your feet), and keep a 2-3 finger space between edge of seat and back of knees.  Knees should be at or slightly lower than the hips and ankles should be in front of the knees.
5)  Your chair should be fully adjustable (i.e. for seat height, backrest height, seat pan tilt, and armrests).  It should have a well-formed lumbar (lower back) support to help maintain the lumbar curve of your spine and your upper body should be within 30° of an upright position.
6)  There should be enough space to use the mouse and use a wrist rest or armrest so that your wrist is straight and your arm muscles are not overworked.  Your mouse should be close to the keyboard and both at the same height and angle as each other.
7)  Use an adjustable document holder to hold source documents at the same height, angle and distance as the monitor.
8)  Use task lighting (small lamps) in areas requiring more light and reduce glare by using light-absorbing blinds or curtains.
9)  If possible, position your computer terminal such that your line of sight is parallel to windows and overhead fluorescent lights (workstations should be located between rows of overhead lights).
10)  If you are performing very intensive or highly repetitive tasks try taking frequent short breaks and scheduling at least 5 minutes of non-computer work per hour to provide relief.  Change positions frequently, don`t slouch or bend to the side or forward and do alternate crossed legs.  Do not sit for more than 50 minutes at a time.

Laptops have been ever more popular these days, whether you use it for performing work tasks, in school for taking notes and doing homework or just because of their portability.  However, these devices are not ideal for extended periods of use, so if you do need to spend a lot of time in front of the laptop, here are a few useful tips to follow:
1)  Place the laptop on a flat surface with the screen tilted back 110-150°.
2)  If working on a desk for prolonged periods, use a laptop docking station or separate keyboard and mouse with the laptop raised so screen is not causing neck strain (viewing angle no more than 15° down).
3)  Take short breaks frequently and focus on a distant object for a few seconds.  Avoid prolonged periods of use!
4)  Maintain comfortable viewing distance, place laptop to minimize any glare from windows/lights, adjust brightness and contrast to suit lighting conditions, and keep the screen clean.

Unfortunately, we may suffer from musculoskeletal injuries that occur due to repetitive actions at work or from an improper workplace set-up.  So with this in mind, here are a few signs and symptoms that you should look for: muscle fatigue or tiredness, aches which subside with rest, muscle tightness, pain or stiffness when changing positions or with getting up from bed in the morning, problems moving fingers, thumb or hands, problems gripping objects, loss of sensitivity to touch, or to temperature changes, numbness, tingling, burning, weakness and/or pain.  If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, you should let your work supervisor know and it would also be important to check with your primary healthcare provider (e.g. family doctor, chiropractor, etc.) to properly assess and discuss treatment options, if necessary.

Remember always ask your supervisor/employer with regards to specific safety hazards that are implemented at your workplace and how to prevent injuries from happening!  Also, if you do spend a lot of time in front of a computer, it would be beneficial to have regular eye examinations and inform your eye care provider of your computer use.  Finally, remember there is no one correct way to sit at your desk, since these are just general recommendations.  The important thing is to constantly adjust your position and with comfort being the key!  These are just a few simple ways to make your workplace a more fun, safe, pain-free and ‘ergonomically’-friendly environment!  Take care!

In good health,

Alan Ali, B.Sc.(Hons), D.C.

Chiropractor & Acupuncture Practitioner at Mahaya Forest Hill Integrative Health