Ergonomics A Significant Factor In Workplace Safety

By Mara McGinnis

Release Date: April 22, 1998 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Reducing repetitive strain injuries (RSI) while increasing comfort at work is easy, effective and often inexpensive for workers or employers with the proper equipment, a University at Buffalo ergonomics expert says.

Colin Drury, Ph.D., UB professor of industrial engineering, defines office ergonomics as adjusting the job to the person to improve human performance and well-being.

He stresses that both the design and arrangement of the office equipment to ensure safe, effective interaction and the habits of individual workers must be considered when making ergonomic adjustments in the workplace.

"Computers have drastically changed the way we work. People are doing the same job for longer durations, which is really a problem," explains Drury, who has been teaching ergonomics at UB since 1972.

Drury says the four heights to be considered for ergonomic workspace design are feet, seat, elbows and sightline. He suggests that if one of these cannot be adjusted, the other three should be positioned around it.

"Workers have to remember to adjust the equipment to accommodate the body, rather than bend the body to fit the machine, assuming the equipment can be properly adjusted," says Drury.

He notes that most RSIs, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, are referred to in the medical field as repeated low-grade insult since they are the result of workers doing the same task in the same position for extended periods.

"The human body is a wonderful general-purpose instrument, but when you perform the same operation repeatedly you run into problems," he adds, noting that preventing injuries could be as easy as occasionally alternating from typing to writing.

"Most corrections of ergonomic problems are inexpensive if not free," says Drury, whose own office is a perfect example with its inexpensive, innovative accommodations personally designed for his specific needs. For example, a simple piece of plywood propped up on a desk provides a sloping surface to save him neck strain from reading for extended periods.

Drury explains that even pens, like chairs and keyboards, can be ergonomic. He advises workers who do a significant amount of handwriting to switch from a ball-point to an ink or roller-ball pen to alleviate the pressure exerted from the hand, which causes another example of repeated low-grade insult -- writer's cramp.

He also points out that if the work setting allows, workers can implement "instant ergonomics" by rotating tasks with fellow workers throughout the day and by taking periodic breaks.

"Managers need to realize it will be helping, not hurting, productivity to get employees up and moving every now and then," he notes.

o Keep wrists straight, forearms horizontal and upper arms vertical when typing.

o Position the mouse so that is next to the keyboard. Never reach across the desk to click the mouse. Click lightly.

o Sightline should be declined to a gaze angle of about 45 degrees, rather than straight ahead.

o Position the monitor so that it is directly in front, rather than to the side.

o Determine the optimal seat height by positioning the leg with thigh horizontal, lower leg vertical and feet on the floor so that the hip, knee and ankle form 90 degree angles. Use a footrest if necessary.

o Make sure the chair has a removable arm rest; firm lower-back support; slightly tilted backrest; sturdy, five-prong base; easy swivel movement, and height and tension adjustments.

o For every two hours of computer work, take a 10-15 minute break.