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June 08, 2012

Safety

Ergonomics fits workplace to workers, helps prevent injuries

Story & photo by Geneve N. Mankel, Public Affairs Staff

Ergonomic processes, training and equipment can help prevent fatigue, discomfort, pain and injury for workers.

“Ergonomics is about fitting the workplace to the worker,” said Deb Heise-Clark, ergonomics specialist with the Fort McCoy Installation Safety Office (ISO). “Adjustability in equipment is key because everyone is built differently.”

Ergonomic equipment, such as chairs, desks, monitors and keyboard trays, is adjustable. The problem is people don’t always know how adjustable the equipment is or how to adjust it correctly, Heise-Clark said.

PHOTO: Deb Heisi-Clark shows a Fort McCoy employee how to adjust an ergonomic chair. Photo by Geneve N. Mankel
Deb Heise-Clark, ergonomics specialist at the Installation Safety Office, shows James N. Markgraf, a paralegal specialist at the Installation Legal Office, how to adjust the ergonomic chair on loan to him from the Safety Office. The Safety Office has ergonomic chairs garrison employees can “test drive” prior to purchasing their own.

Heise-Clark said she is available to offer workstation assessments for garrison personnel.

“The assessments usually take about 30-45 minutes,” she said. “I’ll have workers do the things they do on a daily basis, watch their movements and adjust things around to better fit their workplace to them.”

Heise-Clark said personnel should go through supervisory channels to approve workstation assessments. This can allow multiple assessments to be arranged and if approved, purchasing of equipment can be maximized.

Liane Haun, Directorate of Public Works (DPW) Master Planning Division chief, said a number of employees had lower back pain and requested new chairs. Before purchasing any new equipment, Heise-Clark conducted assessments to determine what type of chair each employee needed or if only a lumbar support was needed to correct discomfort.

“These assessments were important to our directorate as we were able to correct the employee’s discomfort, while saving government funds from being used when not needed,” Haun said.

Katie Schindler, DPW management support assistant, had constant pain in her back and shoulders.

Workstation setup

There is no single correct working position or equipment.

Because everyone is built differently, when setting up an ergonomic workstation basic guidelines should be considered. Deb Heise-Clark, the ergonomics specialist with the Fort McCoy Installation Safety Office, had the following tips to make work stations ergonomics friendly:

Monitor – Position directly in front of the user with a 20-40 inch viewing distance. The top of the monitor should be at or slightly below eye level. A monitor arm can be installed to adjust the viewing distance and angle.

Keyboard – Place at a height that allows for a neutral body posture and at a distance that allows elbows to stay close to the torso with forearms parallel with the floor. The keyboard should not be placed at an angle that causes wrists to bend upwards. Keyboards with split keys and palm rests help to keep hands and wrists in a neutral position.

Mouse – Position close to the keyboard to help maintain a straight, neutral wrist posture. It should be designed to fit the hand that normally will operate it. A mouse that is too big or small can cause awkward postures and lead to overexertion. Using shortcut keys can replace mouse tasks.

Palm rest – Hands should move freely and be elevated above the rest while typing. When resting, the pad should contact the palm, not the wrist.

Document holders – Position at or about the same height and distance as the monitor.

Desk – Adjust to provide adequate clearance for legs and allow for proper placement of computer components and accessories. Desk risers can be used to adjust the height of a desk.

Chair – Provide support to back, legs, buttocks and arms while reducing awkward postures, contact stress and forceful exertions. The backrest should conform to natural curvature of the spine and provide lumbar support. It should be positioned at a height that allows feet to rest on the floor or foot rest. The seat pan should allow for a two-to-four finger gap between the back of the knees and front edge of the seat pan. Position arm rests to allow for a relaxed posture. Arm rests that are too high, too low, too wide or too large can cause awkward postures and fatiguing of neck, shoulders and back.

Lighting – Excessive illumination, bright light sources behind a monitor and glare on the monitor screen can contribute to vision problems. Monitors should be placed at right angles to windows and workstations should be spaced between rows of overhead lights if possible.

“My chair did not provide the proper support for my back and shoulders and my monitors were at an inappropriate height and distance,” Schindler said.

Additionally her keyboard tray did not fit her ergonomic keyboard, causing an incorrect angle. The tray also did not accommodate room for a mouse so Schindler had to place the mouse on the desktop, which caused straining in her back, neck and shoulder from constantly reaching toward it.

Heise-Clark recommended an ergonomic chair and footrest, an articulating keyboard tray that could support an ergonomic keyboard and mouse, a document holder that fits between the keyboard and monitor to reduce neck strain and repositioning monitors to correct height and angle.

The adjustments to Schindler’s workstation were made in March and began to help immediately, she said. “I am almost pain free now that the new equipment has been ordered and installed and I have had an opportunity to heal.”

Older workstations are not always designed to accommodate today’s equipment, Heise-Clark said. Older desks, for example, are not designed to support computing work. If purchasing new furniture is not an option, many accessories, such as desk risers, articulating keyboard trays and monitor arms and corner desk sleeves, can improve the functionality of work areas.

Other simple and inexpensive fixes include using a binder filled with paper as a foot rest, a rolled-up towel as a lumbar support, and a ream of paper or book to adjust monitor height. Items also can be rearranged so the most-used items are nearest to the user.

“What you use most often should be as close as possible to you,” Heise-Clark said. This prevents having to reach repetitively for items, which can cause pain or injury.

Sharon Schroeder, a DPW realty specialist, also recently had the ISO assess her workstation. After having lower-back surgery Schroeder was experiencing pain and discomfort in her upper back.

“I felt that it could be corrected by an assessment adjustment to my workspace,” she said.

Heise-Clark suggested starting with an adjustable chair that would allow for better posture and discourage bad habits, such as leaning forward toward her monitor, and leaning to one side while viewing data on the monitor.

Ergonomic desk chairs are an example of office equipment that often is not adjusted correctly, Heise-Clark said. Ergonomic chairs are fully adjustable for height and many have fully-adjustable backs, arm rests and seat pans.

“She also suggested a foot rest, which discourages me from leaning forward and helps correct my posture,” Schroeder said. “I also stand and stretch occasionally.”

In addition to assessments, the ISO, building 1678, has a variety of office equipment personnel can “test-drive” prior to making a purchase. The equipment includes multiple types of chairs, and an ergonomic workstation with an adjustable monitor arm, ergonomic keyboard tray and mouse.

Schroeder says she is more comfortable while working and feels she was provided with good information that helps her recognize when she is falling back into bad habits.

Sarah Morrow, DPW Business Operation and Integration Division chief, said that by working cooperatively with the Safety Office on the ergonomic assessments several thousand dollars likely has been saved by avoiding workplace injuries.

Ergonomic injuries generally occur because of repetitive physical movements and unnatural postures that put stress on ligaments, joints, muscles, nerves and tendons, Heise-Clark said.

Symptoms can include painful joints; pain tingling or numbness in hands or feet; shooting pain in arms or legs, and back or neck pain or stiffness.

Ergonomics also should be considered in working environments other than office spaces, Heise-Clark said.

Warehouse and retail personnel, for example, should use step stools when stocking shelves to avoid repetitive reaching. Maintenance personnel should use tools that have a power grip, which allows the wrist to stay in a neutral position. Personnel who drive or sit for extended periods of time should remove items, such as wallets, from back pants pockets to allow for a more-ergonomic sitting posture.

Ergonomics also can be applied at home. Examples include using knee pads when laying a new floor or working in a garden, alternating hand positions when shoveling and raking, pushing not pulling lawn mowers or carts, and using both the right and left hand when cleaning. Heise-Clark’s favorite example is avoiding trigger finger by not overusing video game controllers.

Injuries that occur outside of the workplace may also cause the need to adjust the workstation at work.

For more information about ergonomics or to set up a workstation assessment, garrison personnel can call Heise-Clark at 608-388-3403.

Tenant personnel with questions about ergonomics should contact their safety representative.

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