Why Workplace Ergonomics Isn’t Paying Off – What Can Be Done About It?

The idea is simple.An employer invests a few hundred dollars on ergonomic equipment for each employee. That investment prevents costly disabilities from occurring. The employer saves money over the long run, and the employees are happier and healthier. Sounds great, right?Except it just doesn’t happen. There are two major problems with this scenario in the real world. The first is that most managers are not motivated by long-term payback. Many are managing from month to month, or quarter to quarter. Even if their company offers them a performance-based bonus on an annual basis, anything that takes multiple years to show a payback is out of the question. Many of them know they won’t be in the same job three years from now, so the long run is somebody else’s problem.The second problem is even stickier. The money they do spend is frequently wasted.”Many people who buy a computer just use the keyboard that comes with the computer and never think much about it”, says Jon Simkovitz of Solutions for Humans. “When they go to their job, if they use a computer, they just use the keyboard the employer has laying in front of the monitor.” In almost every case, that would be the one that came by default with the computer system. A salesperson who was putting together a cost-saving bid proposal did the actual selection of the keyboard. By adding a hard plastic wrist-rest attachment, at an additional manufacturing cost of perhaps 40 cents per unit, they can call it ‘ergonomic’. In fact, they could call it an ergonomic keyboard without changing anything at all.Ergonomic, but it may not be what you think.Most people think that if they buy a product that is ‘ergonomic’, it is designed so that their natural range of motion is utilized without stress or strain and that it will not injure them. But the word ergonomic technically applies to designing and arranging things for interaction between people and the things or machines they use. There is no objective measure in most cases of how well any design performs, particularly with regard to long-term injury avoidance. Even a product that is an ergonomic nightmare can be marketed as ‘ergonomic’.The number one feature that most buyers of office chairs look for is ‘good lumbar support’. The notion of the need for such support arose quite by accident. A chance discovery by a physical therapist in New Zealand in 1956 showed that when a patient with compressed discs was placed in a position that ‘opened up’ the front of the vertebral spaces, there was a therapeutic improvement. Since the cost of the ‘treatment’ was negligible, word of its effectiveness in this case and others spread like wildfire. The problem from a chair buyer’s standpoint, however, is that most chairs are not purchased for a user who has a clinical disc compression. Hospitalization and bed-traction may be indicated for certain other types of disc compression, but that doesn’t mean that it would be beneficial for everyone. As it turns out, ‘good lumbar support’ may be the wrong feature for most people.At a recent ergonomics convention in Las Vegas, there were literally dozens of different designs of ergonomic chairs. Only one design on display provided back support all the way up the spine and also allowed the elbows and shoulder-blades to move backward. According to Kirsten Liegmann, of Soma Ergonomics, “If you stand up straight, with good posture, you can see that your shoulder blades stick out farther than your spine. Most chair backs, in order to support your spine, are going to force your shoulder blades forward! How can you expect to sit with your shoulders forced forward all day long and then go home without tension in your neck and shoulders?” Why, then, do so many chairs do exactly that and their makers still call them ergonomic?A ‘little bit pregnant'”You have to ignore the term ‘ergonomic’ when you’re buying equipment for a computer workstation.” says Marcus Walker of SafeType, Inc. “Every keyboard is ergonomic, in the sense that it provides an interface between a human and a machine. Most of them require the hands to be pronated (palms turned downward), which any physiologist will tell you is not a relaxed position. So even if they help straighten the angle of the wrist, they leave the hands pronated, which produces pressure in the forearm and wrist.” Says Walker, ” Having a little bit of pressure is kind of like being a little bit pregnant. A keyboard either eliminates pronation, or it doesn’t! “So what about those gel pads, and all the other wrist rests? Those can help, right? According to Michael Abramson of HealthyComputing, not necessarily. “Wrist rests should only be used for resting. What we actually see in practice is that people get wrist rests and then rest on them the whole time they are typing.” What this does, of course, is over-extend the angle of the wrist and then, additionally, there is the external pressure on the carpal gap from the wrist rest! Of course, as Walker at SafeType points out, your wrist probably shouldn’t be turned that way in the first place.Non-computer ergonomicsFor people whose work-station is more complicated than just a computer and desk-work, there is good news. Adjustable-height work tables and adjustable rack and shelving units have improved the options for many workers. Mats that help prevent fatigue and shin-splints are available from several manufacturers. However, the more complicated a work situation is, the more difficult it is for an untrained person to know how to best organize all of this adjustable equipment.That’s where a professional ergonomist can help. “Failure to use an adjustment is the same as not being provided with the adjustment.” says Josh Kerst, an ergonomist and Vice President of Humantech. He cites an example where a company had spent a great deal of money on equipment for a shipping department, but the attitude of supervisors encouraged workers to avoid taking time to make re-adjustments every time a different worker used a work-station.Once some minor changes were made, supervisors were asked to support the notion that each worker should take time to make the adjustments before using a packing station. The newly empowered workers now make adjustments for themselves, and supervisors have the responsibility to verify the adjustments. The result? Not only are injury rates down, but orders are processed faster than ever before.Many managers still don’t want to spend this month’s budget in exchange for possible savings at an unspecified future date. That will probably be somebody else’s problem anyway. “Besides,” says one manager who asked to remain nameless, “any new equipment gets charged directly to my department, but doctor visits and prescription costs don’t.”While these challenges linger, thousands of workers every year are disabled by Repetitive Stress Injuries (RSI) including Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. In the U.S. and Canada, the cost is in the billions of dollars. In Europe, there are countries where the percentage of workers affected is even higher.It’s not fully known why there are major differences in injury statistics from one country to the next. The incidence of such disabilities in most Asian countries is startlingly low. While it is clear that there can be some genetic pre-disposition to be more prone to this type of injury, it’s not clear whether cultural values play perhaps an even greater role. In most Asian cultures, stoic suffering is acceptable, whereas suing one’s employer for compensation is not.What can be done?Workers are needlessly becoming disabled. Medical expenses mount. Products that don’t adequately address the problems they are intended to solve rake billions of dollars off the economy while providing little benefit. These are expenses borne by all of us. How can we change this situation?Here are a few suggestions:1) Focus on productivity, health, safety and prevention instead of lagging indicators such as injury rates. Reaction to injury leads to poor choices that get rationalized as sensible, but show little benefit. Providing hearing protection only for workers whose hearing is already damaged would seem like foolishness to most of us. Yet it is actually the policy of most companies to consider alternative computer keyboards only for injured workers. This is like closing the barn doors after the horses have run away. Encourage your employer to be proactive about prevention. (You could suggest that your managers read this article.)2) Insurance companies who write coverage for Worker’s Compensation need to become proactive in establishing incentives for companies who will invest, not just in any product that says it is ergonomic, but in products that can be demonstrated in scientifically sound studies to show promise, and in paying for independent ergonomists (those who don’t sell the ergonomic products they recommend) to help make sound decisions. It takes a small leap of faith, but any insuror who does this will be at a competitive advantage in the years to come by having a lower claims rate and offering lower premiums.3) Standards need to be established. Many ‘ergonomic’ products are designed by marketing or manufacturing people with no clear understanding of the ergonomic problems that need to be solved. New initiatives like the ErgonomicStar™ program, and other evaluation procedures or rating systems need to be developed as buyers’ guides so money isn’t wasted on products that don’t accomplish the buyer’s purpose.4) Don’t waste energy on government regulation. Even if the OSHA standards put in place at the end of the Clinton administration had remained, there would not have been sufficient funding to ensure across-the-board compliance. Why start over on a losing proposition? There are very real and tangible benefits over the long run to implementing sound ergonomic choices. If government offices at all levels would invest in the best ergonomic consultants and equipment currently available, it would stimulate the economy and protect a large body of workers all at the same time. The best role of government is to set an example rather than create regulation.5) Look for the obvious targets of opportunity within your own company. Computer workstations are certainly not the only only area of concern regarding ergonomics. They do present an easy opportunity in many companies to make a lot of difference, however. Every manufacturing environment can present different challenges. Every computer workstation shares a large number of similarities with most others. Identify those types of opportunities within your business and suggest a task force be formed in the interest of greater productivity, as well as better health and safety.With the proliferation of home computers and relatively inexpensive internet access, more people are spending more hours at the computer. Children are beginning to use computers at an earlier age than ever before. If you use your imagination, it’s not difficult see that we could find ourselves dealing with young people who are disabled before they ever have a chance to begin a career. A general awareness of ergonomic issues has never been so important.Ideas are very real things. Powerful ideas have always shaped the future of nations. What ideas will shape the future of your workplace? Good ergonomics is an idea whose time has come.