Ergonomics: Posturing Science

The U.S. Department of Labor treats ergonomics as a science, but if creating the perfect ergonomical work space is a science, it's a science of little things related to correct posture and avoiding risks associated with repetitive motions. Whether it's for a home office or a separate workplace, ergonomics is something that is continually refined over time, and that is reflected in new product lines that attempt to reduce the risk of musculoskeletal injuries. "It probably all started with seating, then it came with the keyboard mechanism, and then they started arguing about the [computer] monitor, and then the footrest," said Jeff Peterson, president of Techline Workspace Studio. "New information is discovered and things are refined, not only regarding the products but also people's view of ergonomics." Explained Jeff Lerdahl, president of Lerdahl Business Interiors, "We're trying to adapt the workplace to specific workers' needs for good health. Another way to put it is to prevent non-accident-related injuries."


Tools of the trade

It's no accident that the ergonomically correct office is made possible by certain ergonomic tools – the most important of which is the task chair. Peterson said the chair should be firm but allow for some movement. "A lot of chairs have locks on them, which is great, but the problem with that is people will lock in at a 90-degree angle," he explained. "Over the course of the day, they never think of changing that lock to make it 130 degrees and relaxing their back on occasion. It's always nice to have your back move a little bit and have a little flexibility, not only to strengthen it but just to keep it loose."

In Lerdahl's view, comfort is not the key consideration, support is. "It has to supply support for your back and at the right spot," he stated. "If you are sitting on a chair with lumbar support but it's not where it needs to be for your back, then there is no lumbar support. You need that lumbar support to be flexible so that it does fit your body."

The position of the chair's armrests are sometimes neglected, but your forearms need to rest on something. They should be at elbow height when you are sitting, and the keyboard mechanism also should be at elbow height. When the keyboard mechanism matches that height, there is a straight angle for the wrists.

A standard desk is about 30 inches high, but there are height-adjustable versions that can be fitted with keyboard mechanisms, adjustable computer monitor arms, and footrests. "You can take a standard desk and put in a keyboard mechanism, both sliding and articulating," Peterson said. "It should allow you to sit back away from the desk, rest your forearms, and it should allow you to articulate the keyboard so that your wrists are even with your forearms and positioned at a straight angle so you're not straining forward as though a keyboard was on top of the desk. If you have to lower the desk to support your arms on the desktop, that really doesn't work."

This also takes away from usable desk space, and it forces one to lower the seat, which increases stress on the arms. According to Peterson, the seat is supposed to be at a height where your knees bend at a 90-degree angle while your feet rest on the floor. (Not everyone is tall enough to have their feet rest on the floor, so the use of a footrest can accomplish the same thing.)

Another key component is the computer monitor arm, which should be both depth and height adjustable. Ideally, you want the computer monitor positioned so that your eye level is either at the top of the monitor or at the top line of text, and at arm's length for a readable distance. "That allows you to sit comfortably in your chair, and not strain your back to look at it," Peterson noted. "It should really be arm's length away so you can view it, or otherwise at a length that makes it easy to view. Then it's depth adjustable and height adjustable, not only for ergonomics but for usable space on the desktop, versus having your monitor just sitting on your desk."

When talking on the phone, some people cock their heads to one side or the other, which can strain the neck if done for a prolonged period of time, and if the phone is used a great deal. The use of a headset to listen to phone conversations permits you to hear the person on the other end without moving the head.

The cost of ergo

Peterson believes an ergonomically suitable work station (minus computer cost) can be accomplished for $1,100 or less, in part because price points have come down for ergonomic tools. Lerdahl's breakdown includes about $400 to $500 for a task chair, roughly $150 to $300 for an adjustable keyboard tray, and $600 to $800 for a work surface – if it has to be retrofitted to become adjustable. The important point to understand is that desk work isn't necessarily stress free. "Just by sitting and being sedentary, your body has stress," Lerdahl noted. "That's what the principles of ergonomics deal with."

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