Our posture is how we choose to hold our bodies during tasks such as standing in line at the grocery store, driving or while working at a computer. We are often told from a young age to stand up straight. Teens are often told to fix their posture while using their phones. Employees are encouraged to improve their posture while using their computers. But, what exactly is good posture? Posture is how you align your body during a task or at rest.
Our bodies are meant to stack up a certain way. Our bones are designed to be in alignment that supports smooth and safe movement. Our spine has curves that are designed to help us move against gravity. Each joint is designed to move in one or multiple directions. Our ligaments, tendons, and fascia function best when our joints are correctly aligned. When we continually hold our bodies, consciously or unconsciously, out of alignment our tissue lengths change and our joints can’t work correctly. We begin to feel sensations of stiffness and hear our joints popping and clicking. Then we begin to experience achiness or pain which may be mild, nagging or intense. When we are correctly aligned, we have an amazing amount of motion and strength available to do a wide variety of tasks.
It is a misconception that we should be in excellent posture at all times. Instead, we should feel equally as comfortable in perfect posture as we do in any other position. We should never compromise our best alignment for repetitive or difficult tasks such as exercise or lifting. We should be in proper alignment most of the time. What is most important is that we move and use the amazing amount of motion we have available to us on a regular basis.
We have many landmarks on our bodies we can use to identify if we are in or out of alignment. Knowing these landmarks is the first step to better alignment. Once we know where our bodies are tight, we can design a plan for moving into better alignment.
Ergonomics is primarily about reducing risk factors. Risk factors come in four categories including task-based, environmental, hazards and personal. Examples of task-based risk factors include poor posture, time on task and repetition. Environmental risk factors include equipment, lighting, noise, and temperature. Hazards may be stress, distractions, or electrical exposure. Personal includes general wellness, weight, and related activities. These are a few examples of risk factors that can affect the likelihood of injury at your workstation. One or two risk factors alone may not result in an injury, but as risk factors are layered together with the risk of injury increases. An ergonomic evaluation can help you identify and reduce risk factors.
Sitting or Standing Computer Workstation Wellness Guide
Home Ergonomic Evaluation
Today many people are using computers and laptops in their homes. In some homes, families are sharing computer workstations for work, homework and leisure activities. When parents and children are using the same computer workstation how can you design the space so it is safe for everyone? A home ergonomic evaluation can help your family create a workspace that is ideal for one or all members of the family.
Work Based Ergonomic Evaluation
Many employees are spending the majority of their day in their workstations on the computer and the phone. An ergonomic assessment can help to reduce risk factors and prevent immediate or future injury. Some employers may allow an on-site evaluation. You should check with your supervisor if this is allowed. If on-site evaluations are not allowed, an evaluation can be completed using photos or video of you and your workstation.
If your workplace hosts lunch and learn activities, ergonomics education is an excellent option for providing employees with the knowledge they can apply immediately.
Ergonomics Equipment vs. Ergonomics Habits
I have been working in office ergonomics for 23 years. In the early years, the challenge was often about finding better equipment. More employees were being asked to use computers, but they still had standard wooden or metal desk and chairs. This mix started the evolution of office-based cumulative trauma. Today when I do ergonomics assessments people often have ergonomic equipment including an ergonomic chair, an ergonomic keyboard, an ergonomic mouse, a flat screen monitor, etc. They have often tried a variety of ergonomic equipment but are still experiencing pain and discomfort. What’s the problem?
The problem is habits. Humans are creatures of habit. You can adorn your workstation with every high tech ergonomic gadget with a five-star rating on Amazon, but if you are not using it correctly, you will still have problems. Another problem is that not all equipment labeled ergonomic is ergonomic. Let’s discuss this first.
The most basic ergonomic principle is to use the largest muscle you can to do a task. This principle is most commonly associated with lifting, but it applies to all tasks especially if you do them repetitively. Let us take for example a roller ball mouse. When you use a roller ball mouse, you are using a single finger to move your cursor around your screen. When using a standard mouse, your palm should be resting on the mouse you are pushing it with the muscles that originate in your shoulder. If you are mousing a few time per day, the roller mouse is fine. If you are mousing all day, eight hours per day, you must use the larger muscles to do this repetitive task or you are asking for trouble.
Now let’s look at another piece of desk equipment described as ergonomic that can cause a variety of problems, the wrist rest. Wrist rests were designed to provide a soft place to rest your wrists while you are not typing or mousing. When wrist rests are used to rest the wrists while typing or mousing they cause several problems. This causes the user to use smaller muscles to do the work. Moving around on the keyboard should involve shoulder muscles. When the wrists are stuck on the wrist rest, you must use much smaller muscles of the wrist and hand to move around the keyboard. These smaller muscles fatigue quicker and are more susceptible to repetitive injury. Another problem is called contact stress. The constant pressure on the wrist from resting on the wrist rest compresses the tissues including the carpal tunnel. This pressure reduces blood flow and creates less space for the tendons to glide. Another problem that results from using a wrist rest while typing is it puts the wrist into extension. When the wrist is in extension the carpal tunnel is smaller. These three issues when combined put the user on a path to wrist and hand pain. Using a wrist rest also pushes your keyboard and mouse further from you which can create a variety of problems in the upper back, neck, and shoulders. Now that we have addressed some examples of how ergonomic equipment is not necessarily ergonomic let’s move on to habits.
Humans are creatures of habit. Our habits may be good for us or bad for us. Either way, habits are hard to change. The habits we develop at our workstations include our posture, how we move and how we organize our space. Our bodies have powerful muscle memory. When we become involved in our work it is easy to sink back into old habits. Common habits include pushing the keyboard away from the edge of the desk and leaning forward while typing. Another is sitting on the edge of the chair. Another is sticking to the wrist rest while typing. There are many. It takes anywhere from two weeks to thirty days to eliminate one habit and replace it with a new habit so changing your workstation habits takes awareness and persistence. I find that providing people with the underlying knowledge and rationale why the change in habit is important helps create a commitment to change.