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Ergonomics and the Office

Why is it Important? 

By incorporating ergonomic principles into the functional design of a contemporary office, the workers become more productive and efficient. Each worker's tasks center around a workstation and the configuration of the workstation depends on the performance duties of each worker. 

Workstation 

The goal for each worker should be to maximize productivity and efficiency with minimal stress and injury. In a modern day office the center of the worker's activity revolves around a computer, desk and chair. The application of ergonomics is most important to the activities that make up the bulk of the workers time. 

To prevent the worker from wasting energy by moving in and out of a chair, space must be used efficiently. The working area can be divided into zones. Zone 1 is the area containing materials most frequently accessed and therefore within a 12-inch reach. Those materials less frequently used are in zone 2 or within a 20-inch reach. Those materials that are seldom used are in Zone 3 or greater than 20 inches away from the worker. 

The idea is to use shelving and cubicles that are compactly designed to organized things into respective zones. All compartments should be clearly labeled and any materials used frequently should be among those within easy reach. Sometimes it is necessary to organize shelving into portable units such as carts with casters. For ease of operation these casters should have low rolling resistance and a centralized locking system. 

Unnecessary motions interrupt a smooth workflow and expend wasted energy. They also cause cumulative trauma to the back, neck and shoulders. Work should be varied when there are long periods of fixed postures and work periods should be interspersed with breaks and pauses. Stretches and exercises can be performed at the workstation without disrupting the work routine. 

Frequently used implements like pens should be ergonomically designed and bookstands for reading materials should be used to prevent prolonged flexion of the neck. Headset phones and speaker phones prevent the neck problems associated with the wedging of telephones between the head and neck. They free up the hands and prevent interruptions in workflow. 

Computer Use 

Since most office work centers around computer use special attention should be given to the computer set-up. The seating posture of the computer user is specific to the individual. Chairs, desks, keyboard trays, monitor stands & arms and workstation configurations should therefore have adjustments that allow for variations in worker positioning. All controls should be adjustable from a seated position. 

Chair backrests should be flexible enough to support the natural curvature of the spine and should have tilt, horizontal and vertical adjustments. When seated in the chair the worker's trunk should be slightly inclined to avoid excessive pressure on the lumbar discs. The seat pan should have sufficient depth and width, sufficient padding and a waterfall curvature at the front. 

The armrests should be sufficiently padded with height, angle and width adjustability to adequately support the forearms so as to reduce static muscle tension of neck and shoulder muscles. The armrest should not interfere with forward movement of the chair toward the desk. The chair is most stable on a five-prong base with casters that have braking and non-skid features. Footrests should be available to reduce stress on the thighs, and adjustable in incline with a height to a minimum of two inches. 

Floating monitor stands & arms are ideal for flexible positioning of monitors and there should be ample space on the desk in front of the monitor. The top of the monitors should be at eye level or slightly below with the neck at no more than 15 degrees in flexion. Desk heights can be adjustable only if stability of the desk is not sacrificed. It is helpful if the desks have rounded corners rather than square ones to avoid injury from bumping into them. 

Environmental Factors and Office Layout 

The degree of worker isolation that is optimal for worker performance should be figured into office design. Extreme isolation is undesirable in that it can create boredom but the worker should not have a level of social stimulation that will interfere with focus on performance. 

Noise or unwanted sound can also adversely affect performance by distracting workers. Obtrusive sounds should be contained or eliminated at the source with materials such as acoustic tile and partitions. On the other hand background music can serve to dampen unwanted sound and enhance job performance. 

Lighting should be tested in terms of brightness levels and the levels should be appropriate for the visual demands of the various tasks. There are predetermined optimal lighting standards for specific office tasks. There are also standards set for optimal office temperatures that are designed to optimize office performance. 

Ergonomics and Management Programs 

Management should develop strategies for each job through ergonomic programs or ergonomic manuals and then integrate the workers job into the overall flow of the office. Input by employees should be encouraged in terms of physical discomforts and procedural inefficiencies. 

By taking a proactive role in initiating ergonomic programs the business bottom line is enhanced through worker productivity and decreased healthcare costs.

Sources:
1) Allie, Paul. Conference Paper. “Supporting Natural Human Motion While Seated”
"http://www.cteelcase.com/Knowledgebase/nathuman.htm"
2) Inkeles, Gordon and Iris Schencke. Ergonomic Living: How to Create a User-Friendly Home and Office. New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1994
3) Kroemer K. H. E. and E. Grandjean. “The Design of Workstations.” Fitting the Task to the Human: A Textbook of Occupational Ergonomics. London: Taylor and Francis, 1997