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Workplace Health and Safety

Why Modern Ergonomics Lacks Common Sense

Photo: Courtesy of Studio Republic on Unsplash

Alison Heller-Ono MSPT, CDA, CASp, COESP, CIE, CPE, CMC,

President and CEO, Worksite International, Inc

In 2020, employers face an ever-changing, complex work environment. The challenges are significant, ranging from new employment laws; to changing work schedules that allow employees to work from anywhere at any time; to a deepening, multi-generational workforce. 

Beyond the human aspect are the rapid advances in technology, which we all must embrace. Employers must take these factors into account as the socio-technical system of work evolves, becoming more complicated in the next decade. 

A healthier office

A common theme is the need to work in a safe, healthy, and productive manner. To achieve harmony within the complexity of work, employers must embrace organizational ergonomics.

Ergonomics is a powerful change agent to drive both organizational improvement and individual productivity. Yet, if you ask most employees if they know what ergonomics is, or if their employer has provided office ergonomics training, many will say “no.”

Employees lack the awareness to recognize when repetition is fatiguing their muscles or when prolonged sitting is affecting spinal health. Adjusting an ergonomic chair is not an intuitive process. 

In a study from Cornell University, Dr. Alan Hedge analyzed how over 1000 office workers at 23 different organizations used their chairs. He found that the only chair features most employees utilized were the height and armrest mechanisms.

An ergonomic chair is not the only perplexing piece of furniture styming employees. Many employers are providing adjustable-height, sit-to-stand workstations, yet employees are standing too long or fail to set the height correctly. Chalk it up to a lack of office ergonomics training.

A long way to go

It’s been over 70 years since the science of ergonomics was first used to influence the way we work, however, ergonomics is neither intuitive nor sensical. For it to change, the science must be commonly taught and commonly practiced. Unfortunately, we are not there. 

There is evidence of the lack of integration of sound ergonomic principles all around us. Walk into any new building in the United States and while it may look beautiful, trendy, and modern, chances are it is far from ergonomic. 

Cool-looking ball chairs will cause falls and poor posture. The ergonomic chairs selected are “one-size-fits-all” and won’t cater to the smallest or largest workers. The sit-to-stand desks don’t go low enough either. The latest open office environment contributes to headaches, frustration, and lost productivity from a lack of privacy and ineffective lighting design. 

The most glaring problem is that employees don’t know how to use the ergonomic equipment and technology provided to them. 

A critical error

Most employers fail to invest in a consultation from an ergonomist when designing their workspaces. 

Instead, they take the advice of either an architect and/or designer, who cares more about an area’s appearance rather than its function. Or they go online and purchase ill-fitting, inferior, cheap, and foreign-made products. These decisions may make business sense, but miss the mark in achieving a human-centered design that meets the needs of employees. 

Scenarios like these show that ergonomics is not yet sufficiently integrated into the office workplace. Today’s workforce is primed for online ergonomics training and education. Employers are wise to utilize online learning to assure decision-makers understand ergonomic principles for work integration. 

Online training teaches employees workstation self-correction, self-care, and safe, ergonomic work practices. To truly benefit, everyone in an organization must be aware of ergonomics and put its best practices into use. 
As we move into the 21st century, organizations should know and embrace the value of good office ergonomics, and should integrate and practice it at all levels daily. By doing so, employers will achieve a truly ergonomic, healthy, and productive workplace.

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