White Collar Ergonomics

April 3, 2007
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Although the standardization of ergonomics in the white-collar workplace has diminished from what only five years ago was considered a crisis issue for employers, the field is still finding opportunities to improve worker productivity and health.

In the 1990s, liability issues concerning carpal tunnel syndrome, and to a lesser degree lower back pain, made ergonomics a hot-bed issue for employers. The U.S. Department of Labor concluded that CTS was the “chief occupational hazard of the decade” and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health predicted that by the year 2000, one-half of all office workers would suffer from “cumulative trauma disorders” such as CTS.

“Things like that really sparked an interest in ergonomics,” said David Trippany, corporate ergonomist for office furniture manufacturer Steelcase Inc.

“Back then, it was all posture, and academic researchers worked hard to figure out what was causing the injuries.”

Ergonomics was a new concept at the time, and far from standard practice, recalled Dave Custer, president of Custer Office Environments in Grand Rapids. Many chairs in the workplace had straight backs and seats with fixed arms and bases. Keyboard trays and palm rests were rare.

“In the 1980s and much of the 1990s, (ergonomic) was a new word,” Custer said. “When you talked about an ergonomic chair, people didn’t know what you were talking about.”

For several years, office furniture dealers such as Custer and Interphase Office Interiors, also in Grand Rapids, arranged ergonomic audits for their clients, designing workstations around ergonomic concerns and showing employees how to use and adjust ergonomic chairs and keyboard trays.

“You don’t see that anymore,” said Interphase President and CEO Randy DeBoer. “The emphasis is still there, but it’s becoming an assumption — it’s built into everything now.”

With the implementation of ergonomic best practices into office design and furniture, basic concerns have faded, but that doesn’t mean they are forgotten. A Steelcase study last fall found that 81 percent of workers think ergonomics has an effect on productivity, with 77 percent indicating they believed it was important.

Grand Haven-based Atlas Ergonomics conducts ergonomics assessments and provides support technology and services for clients nationwide. President James Landsman said the company has seen sizable growth in the past few years, even as employer interest has waned.

“As a term, ergonomics has been bastardized. … It’s used to loosely show value in a product and, in some clients’ minds, a legal hammer that is going to come down on them,” Landsman said. “The approach hasn’t been one that businesses respond to. They haven’t been able to show an impact.”

Employers generally receive only anecdotal evidence that a purchase of ergonomic workstations and chairs has any financial impact. Using its proprietary technology, Atlas produces data and metrics to show how a deployment can reduce injuries and increase productivity. Much of this is accomplished by measuring workers’ comfort levels, reasoning that discomfort has a detrimental impact on productivity and is a strong indicator of a potential injury.

Of particular concern for Atlas is workers’ understanding of how to use the ergonomic features they are provided. Most of the products in today’s market fulfill ergonomic requirements, but the benefits are not seen if the product is not used properly.

“There are two components to the equation,” said Gretchen Gschiedle, ergonomics research program manager for furniture maker Herman Miller Inc. “The product design and the product application.”

This can also create unexpected results, Landsman said. He cited an example from the trucking industry, where a trucker throws out his back while loading material as a result of sitting in his truck seat incorrectly for the previous six hours, allowing the rig’s vibrations to deteriorate the spinal discs.

Incidentally, research from Mayo Clinic and HarvardMedicalSchool found no relationship between carpal tunnel syndrome and office-type work. Richard Symons, an attorney at Varnum, Riddering, Schmidt & Howlett LLP specializing in workers’ compensation litigation, noted that CTS is actually a larger concern for factory workers than office employees.

“It’s more than just physical issues,” Trippany said. “There is a lot of competition to attract and retain good talent, and having a healthy workplace is one way of doing that. … We’re starting to reach into new science, where we’re seeing it’s more than just posture. It’s lighting and acoustics, cognitive and psychological issues, workplace stress — all these things affect the health and well-being of an employee.”

Custer said he has seen an increased interest in sit-to-stand workstations. DeBoer said lighting and sound have taken on a greater importance among his clients. At manufacturers such as Steelcase, Herman Miller and Haworth, research is following changes in how people work today. The emerging mobile workplace — where work is conducted via laptop or BlackBerry at an airport, coffee house or rest area — is presenting entirely new ergonomic concerns.

Symons, the litigator, is seeing cumulative injuries such as CTS occur more often in combination with diabetes or other chronic conditions.

“People in the workplace seem to have a lot of other health issues today, some with similar symptoms,” he said. “You have to sort out where the pain is coming from. Is the numbness and tingling in the hands carpal tunnel syndrome or non-occupational diabetes?”

Atlas has found that pre-existing conditions tend to create new ergonomic concerns. The increase of obesity in the workplace, for instance, could have an enormous effect on workers in sedentary occupations such as call centers and transportation. The larger a person is, the less comfortable many chairs will be.

Six years in the making, the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association International will release the final draft of its first ergonomics guideline later this year. Already, new data available on the size and shape of the average American, as well as concerns for global customers, could necessitate an update of the standard.

Most ergonomic standards were created from dimensions of human beings involved in military and astronaut training programs. A new anthropometric database developed by industry leaders and academic institutions determined that the average person is wider than those dimensions. Global companies are finding an even greater disparity in their ergonomic needs.

“We’re looking for ways to make furniture work for the differences in physical height and size,” said Teresa Bellingar, senior corporate ergonomist for Haworth Inc. “There can be large differences between people just here in North America, but then if you’ve got offices in The Netherlands, where people go up to 6-foot-7, 6-foot-9, and Asia, where people go down to 4-7, 4-8, you’re going to need a lot of adjustability.”

One possibility, Bellingar said, is interchangeable bases and other components that allow a standard ergonomic chair greater versatility.    

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