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Ergonomics Made Easy

By Dan Gordon '85, Illustrations by Brian Rea

Published Jan 1, 2011 8:30 AM

By now, we all know about the science of making us comfortable in the office, or at least less likely to suffer such common workplace maladies as carpal tunnel syndrome and chronic back pain. But occupational health is a moving target. Here are some of the freshest findings.

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In a sluggish economy, many who have jobs are in hunker-down mode, working extra hours in the office to preserve their livelihoods. But working too hard can carry risks of its own. And not just the mental stress. Although we don't think of the office as a place where the risk of injury is high, the numbers — and for many of us, our backs, necks, shoulders or wrists — say otherwise.

According to the most recent report from the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1.1 million were injured at work in the private sector in 2008, many of them in the seemingly hazard-free environment of the desk job.

"Sitting puts about 50 percent more pressure on your lower back than standing."

"Workplace injuries are very common and quite costly — in terms of the pain and suffering for the individuals who are hurt, and in the financial cost to society," says Cynthia Burt, injury-prevention program manager of the UCLA Ergonomics Program.

Some of the most common office-induced ailments are so-called repetitive strain injuries from overuse of tendons and muscles through repeated tasks, Burt says. Sore wrists are familiar to people who spend a lot of time on computers, typing and clicking the mouse; those who hold the phone for long periods may feel it in their elbows. And although on the surface a desk job might seem restful, our bodies were built for movement; staying planted in the chair for lengthy periods leads to awkward and uncomfortable postures.

"Sitting puts about 50 percent more pressure on your lower back than standing," Burt says. "When you're not getting up and moving to stretch, you're overusing your back."

Other problems Burt and her colleagues commonly see include neck pain, often caused by too much looking down at documents or, these days, from constantly peering at your smartphone to view and send texts or e-mails.

"As we get older, our spines become compromised from the wear and tear of daily living, and that makes us more susceptible to neck and back discomfort," Burt advises. The eyes have it, too: Staring at the computer monitor for long stints has led many workers to complain of visual fatigue, dry eyes from insufficient blinking, and headaches.

On the other hand, Burt, whose program provides injury-prevention services to 25,000 campus employees, says there is plenty workers can do to minimize these risks. Here are some of the key pointers:

Furnished for Success

In setting up an office workspace, make sure all furniture and equipment conform to both your size and your tasks. Use an adjustable office chair with armrests at elbow height to relieve pressure on your neck and shoulders, and set the chair's height at about knee level.

The chair back should be at about a 100-110 degree angle to the seat and able to move with you. (Reclining is OK, as long as your keyboard and monitor are properly placed.) If you spend a significant amount of time on the phone, use a headset or put the callers on speaker — holding the instrument to your ear puts stress on your elbow, and cradling it between your head and shoulder can hurt your neck.

"Two important things to think about in any workspace are your visual targets and your reaching targets," Burt notes. That means paying attention to the placement of your keyboard, mouse and monitor: You shouldn't have to tilt your head in an awkward position to see, and make sure anything you frequently reach for is within a comfortable distance. Your wrists should float above the keyboard when you type — Burt doesn't recommend using a wrist rest.

Straight Talk

Your parents and teachers were onto something with all those lectures about the importance of good posture. In ergonomics, this means establishing a "neutral" position that reduces muscle and tendon trauma and strain.

For maximum comfort, make sure your head is level and balanced, shoulders relaxed, back and feet fully supported. When performing a task such as typing on the keyboard, keep your elbows close to your body and bent at somewhere near 90 degrees, your fingers relaxed and slightly curved, and your wrists flat, as they would be if you put them on the desk.

Keep Things Moving

Find an ideal position … and then find another one, because no matter how perfect they may be, prolonged, static postures take their toll on the human body. Similarly, when performing any repetitive task, change positions frequently so you rest different muscle groups.

Remove your hand from the mouse at regular intervals to avoid long gripping periods. Burt recommends following the 20/20/20 rule: Every 20 minutes, take at least a 20-second break, shift and look 20 feet away to rest your eyes. If you spend a lot of time working in front of the computer, get away from it during your lunch break.

And be sure to set up your work schedule so you don't have to remind yourself when it's time to move.

Home Stretch

It's the rule of opposites: If you stand for your work, take a seat. If you sit all day, perform stretches that move you into the converse position — in other words, if you've been leaning forward, typing on your computer, do a back extension.

Rest Easy

Want to learn more about how to stay supple on the job? How about adjusting your chair? Exercises that keep you limber at the office? Take an online self-assessment? Check out the UCLA Ergonomics website for these and many other tips.

Get the blood circulating and relieve stiff muscles through stretches that ensure movement for different parts of the body that tend to tense up: the neck, shoulders, arms, wrists, back and spine.

Heed the Warnings

If you're experiencing swelling, tingling or numbness in your hands; aches that don't go away overnight; headaches or any other early signs that you're headed for bigger problems, pay heed. Warns Burt: "Too many people don't think about taking precautions until it's too late."