Many computer and ergonomic websites now provide valuable information on guidelines for sitting and working posture. Many human resources personnel are being trained in ergonomic basics. However, there are times when everything at the workstation looks right but the worker continues to suffer from repetitive strain pain. Here are a few tips to fine-tune your ergonomic intervention.
- Ergonomics is about the worker interacting in his work environment. During their ergonomic evaluations, employees often tell me that they showed up at work one day and had a new piece of ergonomic equipment sitting on their desk. No observation or training was offered. Equipment was purchased because the employer was told that this particular piece of equipment would stop injuries and save the company money. Although in some cases this approach may work, it can often backfire. Employees who are not trained, who do not have the opportunity to provide feedback and offer suggestions, and who are treated in a one-size fits all manner will often reject the equipment or receive equipment that they do not need. These make for expensive paperweights and do nothing to solve potential problems. Make time to get to know the employees, talk to them about what they feel the issues are, observe their working habits, and treat each one as an individual. Since they are the ones performing the job, they will have some valuable feedback to provide and will help guide your intervention.
- Listen to the worker. Begin with the proper ergonomic set-up. However, ergonomic guidelines are just that Ė guidelines. What works for one person may not work for another. Keep an open mind and listen to what the employee is telling you. He or she knows what a certain set-up feels like while you can only observe.
- Give ergonomic adjustments some time. Any piece of new equipment or new arrangement will take two to six weeks to adjust to properly. Productivity may temporarily decrease during this adjustment period. Donít make alterations to a work station during a busy output time or the employee will become frustrated with the inability to perform at normal speed. As familiarity and comfort with the new set-up improves, productivity should reach prior levels. And as pain resolves, productivity will most likely increase. If after one to two weeks the employee reports an increase in pain, the new ergonomic changes may not be appropriate for that employee.
- Observe the worker performing job tasks. In spite of a good workstation set-up, people can still manage to perform activities awkwardly. For example, I observed a woman who would perform a two-key function by tucking her left thumb under the palm to hit the far left control key while simultaneously spreading her index finger to the far right function key. She continued to have left thumb pain and carpal tunnel syndrome symptoms. This was frustrating for the employer who had provided an ergonomic keyboard and right-handed mouse (the employee was right-handed and her right symptoms did improve with the ergonomic equipment). While extreme habitual movements may not be common, they certainly contribute to repetitive strain injuries and would not be discovered except with observation.
- Look at typing style. Typing style and habits can contribute to repetitive strain pain. Stiff fingers, tense fingers, swiveling at the wrist to activate the mouse or to stretch for keys, planting down on the wrist rest, and many other idiosyncratic typing styles can all cause injury.
- Look at things from a different perspective. Many times I would have missed potential causes of injury if I had not walked around employees and looked at them from various positions. Wrist deviation may become more obvious if observed from a diagonal perspective. When looking at an employee from behind, you may see that one shoulder is higher than the other, or that the employee is bumping into equipment placed at the side of the desk. Look under the desk for clutter that may be limiting the employee from getting in close to the desk.
Marji Hajic is an Occupational Therapist and a Certified Hand Therapist practicing in Santa Barbara, California. For more information on hand and upper extremity injuries, prevention and recovery, visit Hand Health Resources.