As employee well-being grows ever more important, ergonomics is becoming a key focus for many forward-looking corporates. In particular, furniture companies (including IKEA) are incorporating “ergonomics” into their table and chairs, with technology players developing, amongst others, the vertical mouse.
Ergonomics is, essentially, the study of the interaction between an individual and his/her workspace and work environment. No two people are built the same anatomically, that means that every individual has different means of adapting to the workspace and environment.
As mentioned in our previous blog on company productivity, the term “ergonomics” is often mistaken as simply “sitting properly when using a computer;” although this is an important aspect for many employees there are many other areas of relevance. Ergonomics is, in fact, not just limited to just desk and office jobs, it is applicable to any work and field as it uses a combination of biomechanics, anatomy, kinesiology, and engineering (to name a few). Ultimately, the target is to maximize comfort and productivity within a workspace that is suited to an individual.
Office- and Desk-related Ergonomics
Ergonomics play an important role in the health and productivity of a company. In an office environment, lack of proper ergonomics could lead to workplace-related injuries such as
- Lower back pain that comes with prolonged sitting,
- Back injuries from improperly lifting, and/or
- Neck pain from looking up/down too much.
The effects of improper work posture, despite the industry or the type of work, have the tendency to creep up and niggle at us over time. Take the common office desk job, for instance: It has been found that the prevalence of back pain was 37% in a study conducted in UPM amongst office workers (prolonged sitting), with the majority (62.5%) not actually having adequate knowledge on ergonomics.
Those working in an office at desk jobs spend up to 8 hours sitting at a desk (probably hunched over, staring at a computer screen). This is on top of sitting in the car or the train braving through a rush-hour before and after work. They sit down for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, hunched over their meals, or break times sitting down, bowed over (once again) looking at a phone screen. More often than not, prolonged sitting comes with a crooked posture, thus leading to upper and lower back pain and postural changes.
In addition, office footwear also plays an important role in ergonomics. Those wearing high heels are more prone to experiencing musculoskeletal injuries and joint (knee and ankle) pain, especially if they spend a lot of time on their feet. Those that wear flats are more likely to suffer from plantar fasciitis as the pressure has been shifted to the hindfoot. There is also a possibility of the foot arch collapsing as flats do not have any arch support.
Ideally, when sitting at a desk, the 90-90 rule should be achieved whereby the elbows, hips, knees, and ankles are all resting comfortably at approximately 90°. With that, the back (spine) has to be kept at neutral (i.e, erect) with the head facing directly forward. This is easier said than done, as everyone is built differently, but there are ways of overcoming this. Shorter people may place a box under their feet, while taller people can elevate the computer monitor to eye level. The backrest of the chair should ideally be supporting the lower back, so those who are shorter can elevate the seat by sitting on a pillow instead. Important: Most changes to obtain an optimal ergonomic working environment are low cost and simple, it is not necessary to waste money on expensive, individualized furniture for each and every member of the company.
The industries that are often overlooked in terms of ergonomics are the ones involving heavy lifting and operating heavy machinery. Workplace safety is more of a priority amongst these industries as the chances of (potentially severe) acute workplace injuries occurring is clearly much higher compared to an office setting. To illustrate, a more prioritized concern for employers would be ensuring a crane is less likely to collapse, as opposed to the shoulder pain operating a jackhammer would cause.
Nonetheless, comfort, in terms of ergonomics and mental health of heavy machinery operators is crucial for a company as it could cause chronic pain and injury. For example, those exposed to equipment or machinery that causes whole-body vibration may suffer from shoulder, back, and neck injuries over a prolonged period of time. This, in turn, may in fact increase the probability of acute/severe workplace injury due to fatigue and pain, leading to mistakes.
While there may not be a fool-proof solution to completely omitting prolonged, chronic injuries caused by lifting or heavy machinery operations, there are ways to reduce the risk of injury. Employees might establish guidelines enforcing employees to lift loads heavier than a certain weight (e.g., 50kg) in pairs or use of a forklift instead. There are also educational courses that can be given to teaching proper lifting mechanics and techniques to prevent injuries.
Manual and General Ergonomics
Different jobs are physically demanding in their own ways. Physiotherapists spend most of their time bent over a patient doing manual work to fix injuries. Kitchen staff in a restaurant spend the day on their feet, looking down dicing food, and lifting heavy pots and pans while cooking. Jewelers are constantly squinting and looking down while setting jewels for hours on end. Even doing house chores like ironing and folding laundry are in these stances! These prolonged stances, be it standing, sitting, or looking down, cause many postural changes and chronic injury.
Prolonged standing is a prolonged/repetitive stance that puts great amounts of pressure on the lower back and lower limbs. Standing hunched over, additionally, adds to the stress by also putting pressure on the upper back, neck, and, sometimes, shoulders. . Examples of professions that require repetitive movements are those working at:
- a supermarket checkout (constant reaching with the same arm),
- manicurists (constant wrist movements when painting nails),
- office jobs that require constant typing, and
- those working in construction (repetitive lifting and laying of bricks).
Employees working in these jobs are susceptible to sustaining a repetitive strain injury (RSI).
While we can rely on technology to help ease our burden from taxing work, it has its limitations. It is important for those who spend hours standing or sitting in the same position to take some time to walk around and/or do some stretches to prevent muscles from being overworked and stiff. As an example, those that have to stand/sit for 8 hours on the job should ideally get up and take a walk every half an hour to an hour. It is even better when some stretches are added as well. Walking gets the blood flowing around the body and prevents muscles from becoming too stiff, while stretching helps release tension that has been built up in the tight muscles. Those that are constantly bowed over will have the tendency to have tight chest muscles (pectoralis), weak upper back muscles, and weak core muscles. If this is not seen, it could result in the development of the upper cross syndrome.
Injury and Recovery
More often than not, the injuries resulting from un-ergonomic environments tend to be overuse injuries or RSIs. Unfortunately, once an injury of this sort occurs, it can be highly challenging to recover from. Overuse of a certain joint or muscle leads to tightness and muscular imbalances, which cause the everyday pain we feel if we are unlucky enough to sustain an injury like this. Most of the time, physiotherapy and rehabilitation are required to heal and treat these injuries. Independently, there are methods to manage the pain and preventing further degradation, however, there is always a chance that the injury will re-occur without proper treatment.
While there are ways to curb the risk of injuries from (re)occurring, it may not be enough. This is where come in. Physiotherapy and rehabilitation may be able to fix the injury in question, ameliorate the pain, and prevent it from getting worse, exercises are still required to prevent (re-)injury. The chances of re-injury or the reoccurrence of pain are higher for injuries sustained through the aforementioned repetitive stances or movements if no exercises are performed in recovery to counter the tightness and muscular imbalances.
Upon seeking treatment for any chronic pain, a physiotherapist would assess the injury and find the potential cause of the injury. It is likely that chronic pain could be caused by overuse in (agonist) and/or weakness in (antagonist) muscles: this is known as muscle imbalance. In this case, the weak (antagonist) muscles will have to be stretched and strengthened and the tight (agonist) muscles need to be released.
As important as ergonomics is to a workplace, it’s the environment, and the people working within the said workplace, there are always limitations to how much it can help. Some people respond differently to different environments, physically and mentally. If you want to make a change in your company (or even home) ergonomics, or want to know more about what we can offer you, contact us. If you think are you are suffering from pain due to repetitive movements and/or stances at work or at home, our world-class physiotherapists can help you!
There are, of course, some light exercises that you can perform at home to help with some of the stresses that may be caused by poor ergonomics. Please see some examples below.
Chest stretch: stretches out the chest muscles that have been tightened from being bowed over for so long, which tightens and shortens the muscles.
Scapular retraction exercise: when hunching over, the upper back muscles become weak and lengthened. We have to reactivate them to “wake them up”. This exercise is a major help.
**Disclaimer: these exercises do not fix any problems or pain, but they may help relieve the pain. It is always best to get professional advice. If you want to know more about the exercises and ergonomics, feel free to give us a call at 03-50315946 or send us a Whatsapp or Make an Appointment. We at Rehamed Therapy are always here to help!