Ergonomics in the Office

By Rickert, Kathleen A. | Risk Management, August 1992 | Go to article overview

Ergonomics in the Office


Rickert, Kathleen A., Risk Management


IN SOME WAYS, CONTEMPORARY OFFICES are no different from those of years gone by. Secretaries still type, but today's technology allows them to type more data - and faster than ever before. However, in today's offices secretaries are not the only ones typing: Over the last decade, the increase in the use of computers has turned many office workers into frequent typists. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, computer sales increased more than 1,100 percent between 1981 and 1987. The National Association of Working Women, quoted b), the Bureau of National Affairs, reports that there were only two computers for every 100 workers in 1980, compared with two computers for every three workers in 1991.

Computers have produced many benefits in the office, including increases in productivity and a reduction in the amount of time needed to perform certain jobs. However, the growing demand for computers has resulted in ergonomic stressors that can be directly linked to the increase in cumulative trauma disorders (CTDs), which include injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis and some forms of back pain.

This rise in the incidence of work-related injuries has resulted in human suffering and increased compensation claims, hospitalization costs and absenteeism. Because of these ill effects, risk managers must act to reduce these injuries, and thus their companies' potential liability. Applying the same basic ergonomics principles in the office that are applied in the industrial workplace is the primary step in accomplishing this goal. By becoming aware of how ergonomic office workstations can prevent workplace injuries, risk managers can help their companies design the most effective ergonomics program for their needs.

Other Stressors

DESPITE THE TRANSITION from typewriter to computer, many offices have not altered their furniture or other equipment. This results in awkward postures caused by workstations that were designed for typewriters. These postures lead to the repetitive motions that are linked to CTDs such as tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome.

Today's specialized job tasks are another culprit in the increase of CTD-type injuries. In the past, many office jobs involved a wide range of tasks. By contrast, contemporary offices feature a number of specialized job functions such as the tasks involved in word processing; employees who work in centralized word processing departments may sit in the same chair all day, typing in data. Today's technology even Kathleen A. Rickerr is a health and ergonomics consultant with National Loss Control Service Corp. in Long Grove, IL. allows computer users to communicate with each other via the computer screen, so they never even need to leave their seats. Such advances mean that some workers sit in the same positions for long periods of time. And since sitting is the most stressful posture to the back, it is therefore not surprising that complaints about back pain from office workers are on the rise.

Although computers make certain workers' jobs easier to perform, computereation has resulted in an increase in job demands and responsibilities for others. Additionally, the rise in electronic monitoring has led some workers to feel powerless and frustrated, with little control over their jobs. Workers in this situation often experience an increase in mental stress, which can be associated with the muscle tension and physical strain that can eventually lead to a CTD complaint.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the basic principles behind the reduction of CTDs in the office are the same as those used to reduce the incidence of similar injuries in the plant, factory or warehouse. The first step, prevention, is achieved through the purchase and use of ergonomically correct equipment and training and ergonomic design of the workstation. These redesigns are more easily accomplished in the office than in an industrial setting because ergonomically designed equipment is readily available. …

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