Ergonomics

Ergonomics is the scientific discipline that adjusts for individual differences in an environment to place the least amount of stress on a person -in other words, making people as comfortable as possible!

Such factors include positioning, workstations/equipment design, temperature, noise and lighting among others.

Work tasks are often repetitive,  whether that is for example sitting at a computer typing for hours, standing at a laboratory bench using pipettes for academic research, or custodial cleaning and housekeeping. Daily, repeated activities have the potential for injury.

We all know that just seemingly simple tasks such as standing or sitting for long periods of time in itself can be tiring and stressful on the body, well….what can be done?
This website is designed to educate and advise MSU students, faculty and staff regarding ergonomics and to give practical up-to-date information on how to change your work environment to reduce the risks of injury. 
  • POSTURE
    Gravity pulls on us throughout our entire life; unless we are an astronaut, we cannot escape its constant influence. Whatever we do it continuously affects us. Our frame (the skeleton and muscles) gives us a structure and a means to resist it….but it gets tired.

    It has been scientifically observed that tight muscles and postures adopted in childhood do not go away when we get older and in fact, develop over time. Through our personal history, upbringing, culture, repeated activities, injuries, illness, etc., we each adopt patterns of posture, physical behavior and movements.

    So what do we do? Where do we start? We need to be aware of how we carry ourselves and move. This is the foundation of everything we do is based. The problem is we are so used to the way we hold ourselves that we consider that as ‘normal’ and cannot see the subtle changes that have happened over time that may predispose us to injury.

    A trained professional such as a physical or occupational therapist will be able to identify these postures and know what to do to correct them. However, there are a few things you can do to help yourself.
  • SITTING AT A DESK
    We sit at desks to perform tasks and usually it requires a level of concentration whether it is writing, typing, reading or perhaps craftwork.  

    This distraction reduces our awareness of how we hold ourselves and increases the risk of developing postures that may be harmful.


    We have all seen pictures like this demonstrating the ideal posture when at a desk, and it is true...but there is more to it.

    This is an ideal starting position with the back straight, shoulders relaxed and elbows around 90°. But it requires muscle work to stay in an upright, erect position...and muscles get tired over time.
     
     
    As the large spinal muscles relax, the spine hunches over and places the head in a more forward position. The neck/shoulder muscles then have to work harder to keep the head up and subsequently may lead to tension and strain.





    In this example, sliding forwards in the chair reduces the thigh support, and increases pressure on the buttocks. Increased low back arching changes the position of the trunk as it leans on the backrest. This leads the head to be more forward (relative to the trunk) and may cause neck pain. In addition, the arm reaches farther forward and without proper support may cause shoulder pain and increased contact pressure at the wrists.





    Slouching is the body’s natural way of relaxing the muscles. There are many postures adopted and none are bad as long as the individual is comfortable. HOWEVER, if these postures are sustained frequently enough, adaptive changes WILL happen to joints and soft tissues leading to more permanent deformity and the likelihood of persistent pain.

    Tips:
    • Get out of the chair every hour—this is the best practice. Removing yourself from the chair and desk for a few minutes every hour significantly helps.
    • Take ‘micro breaks'. Stop typing for 30 seconds every 15 minutes if your job requires a lot of keyboard work.
    • Become more aware of posture. Remembering that it is the sustained postures that usually cause problems—remind yourself to sit up when you catch yourself slouching. Breaking up the pattern of prolonged slouching is usually enough.
    • Set a timer on your phone or counter (see Apps)
  • WORKSTATION SETUP
    Understanding that not everybody can afford or may have access to the best ergonomically designed equipment, there are some simple suggestions that may help make your workstation more comfortable and reduce the potential for injury.

    Statistics have been published on office-related injuries and the relationship due to workspace setup.

    We will attempt to address the most common points so that you know the potential for injury.
    Personal Responsibility
    No matter how good your ergonomic workstation is set up, humans are not designed to sit for long hours. It is essential to understand that repeated and prolonged sitting is unhealthy without taking breaks where you get up regularly (recommend at least once every hour) and take a couple of minutes to walk and stretch.
    Chair and Desk Height

    The chair and desk height ought to be relative to the size and shape of the individual. Ideally when sitting the feet should be flat on the ground with the thighs supported. This distributes body weight and pressure evenly throughout the legs and feet. This position also helps maintain good spinal alignment.






    Sitting with the seat too low increases pressure on the buttocks and leads the pelvis to be rotated backward. This causes the lumbar spine to flatten out and may over time cause back pain. 
    Sitting with the chair too high lifts the feet off the ground and causes an increase in pressure on the thighs and at the edge of the seat (behind the knee).


    Usually, a person will compensate by sliding the buttocks forward to allow the feet to be on the ground. This posture tends to tilt the pelvis forward and arches the spine. This posture increases pressure on the buttocks and may over time cause discomfort.



    As many people nowadays have height-adjustable chairs this can easily be corrected. However if the height of the desk cannot be changed, sometimes (usually with shorter individuals) the chair needs to be higher to allow normal tasks to be done.
    If this is the case a footstool would need to be placed under the feet. This keeps the thigh pressure distributed better and the spine in a more ideal alignment.

    Desk Height

    Most people still sit at desks that are not height adjustable and this can be a problem. Although the majority of people are now sitting in adjustable chairs this just means the chair will fit better, office tasks, however, are done usually at a desk.

    It is becoming increasingly common to see upgrades to varying-height desks to accommodate the differences in shapes and sizes of individuals. If the desk height is fixed then the chair adjustment needs to accommodate the desk rather than the individual. The vast majority of problems come from when the desk is too high relative to the chair. This usually again causes compensations of posture and the risk of muscle tension, fatigue or pain.

    In this situation, it is best to adjust the chair so it is raised, and have a footstool to accommodate for the height difference.
    If you have a fixed-height desk where the use of a keyboard and mouse is the primary task used throughout the day, then obtaining an adjustable keyboard tray may be a good option. This has a number of advantages primarily allowing the chair to stay at the individual's correct height. The tray can be adjusted to optimal placement and distance from the screen and it also gives extra space on the desk surface. Usually, these trays retract under the desk when not in use to allow movement.
    Monitor, keyboard and Mouse Placement

    Monitor placement is very important as it is usually the primary focus of most modern office jobs. In addition, nowadays it is not uncommon to see multiple monitors placed on the desktop.
    Monitors should be placed directly in front of the individual so that little or no neck rotation is required.
    Monitor height is best where the top edge of the screen is at ‘eye height’ to maintain a good head position. Distance from the individual depends on a few factors including eye-sight and size of the monitor but usually a minimum of one arm’s length away.  

    Multiple monitors should be placed as close together as possible to avoid excess neck rotation.

    With single monitors, place the keyboard with the ‘alphabetical keys’ directly in front of the screen. Dual monitors have alphabetical keys centered between the monitors.

    Standard keyboards usually have a numeric keypad built-in on the right-hand side which essentially extends the length of the keyboard. However, the majority of individuals use primarily the alphabetical side and so these keys should be used to help align the keyboard position.

    With the keyboards now typically extended on the right-hand side the mouse is usually placed farther to the right by 6-8 inches. This has the potential to cause wrist and shoulder irritation over time due to the slight over-reach.
    To remedy that, either place the mouse on the left side (yes it takes a little time to get used to),  or if you do not use the numeric keypad much, obtain a keyboard without a keypad. This allows the mouse to be closer. See Keyboard section.
    Keyboard Distance and Height


    Keyboard placement also includes distance from the body at the appropriate height. Ideally when sitting in an office chair the elbows should fall in line with the shoulder. Note that the keyboard placement is over the thigh and knee.


    This example shows that sliding forwards in the chair reduces thigh support, and exaggerates the low back curve.

    Reaching for a keyboard that is too far away will cause the shoulder and neck muscles to fatigue, and the likelihood of rounding the shoulders and back. In addition, compensation will be to bear the weight of the arms through the wrists — leading to an increased risk of injury.

    Warning about Wrist Rests
    Wrist rests may be made of neoprene-covered foam, silicone rubber or other soft material and located just in front of the keyboard or mouse. However, despite being soft it encourages individuals to rest their wrists while typing or ‘mousing’.

    When typing on a keyboard the wrists should not be in contact with any object, reducing the angle at the wrist. Having the wrist in contact with the rest encourages the wrist to bend upwards, while the fingers curl downwards to type. The finger tendons glide through the wrist on the underside and with added pressure may increase the risk of tendon irritation. The same issue is with the mouse—although side-to-side shearing motion is more likely.

    Wrists rests are there for when you are taking a break from typing only. Mouse wrist's rests serve little benefit.

    WORKSTATION SETUP

    For the most frequently used desk items, keep them in the Primary Work Zone where reaching for them is minimized, e.g. keyboard, and mouse. The less frequently used items can be placed further away in the Secondary and Tertiary Work Zones.

    Placement of the phone

    Most office desks have phones and depending on how frequently and how long individuals use the phone usually determines its placement.

    If you are using the phone infrequently, then placing the phone where you can occasionally lean and reach for it is OK, so having it at the back of the desk space is reasonable.
    If you are on the phone more frequently bring the phone closer, so that reaching is minimized. For longer periods of time, you are likely to need a headset. Unless your call can be made privately (closed office) the speaker option is rarely used.

    Warning

    Avoid using shoulder rests or holding the phone with the shoulder as this causes the muscles in the neck to overwork and may cause an injury.

    Tidbits

    Place the phone on the opposite side of the dominant hand. This allows you to write and use your hands for tasks while on the phone and avoids switching hands or having wires across your work.

    Avoid placing too many desk items on the dominant side. Many individuals tend to place phones, printers, stationery, and other regularly used equipment on the one side. If possible spread the equipment around so that you use both arms and avoid the risk of repetitive strain injuries.


  • WORKING FROM HOME

    With the advancement of improved communication, faster internet connectivity, and development of video software, people are finding themselves spending more time working from home. 

    Fundamentally the rules for home ergonomics remains the same as the office, however there are some advantages and some drawbacks. 

    Good Practices

    The single most important aspect to reducing muscle strain and potential injury is forming good habits and identifying simple factors that help limit stress on the body.
    Move frequently
    Being at home gives you greater freedom to move around. Take advantage of it. Limit static positions whether standing or sitting. Get up and move every 30-60 minutes.
    Posture awareness
    As often as you can, try to sit or stand in a more erect posture. Just ‘lift the chest’ (do not worry about pulling shoulders back or tucking in the chin). Sitting up gets tiring after a while and so we slouch to relax – don’t worry that’s OK! For more information click here.
    Stretch and exercise
    Sustained postures or repeated movements (i.e. typing on a keyboard) tighten muscles and stress ligaments. Unwind with some exercises – For more information click here.

    Advantages

    • You can get up and move around frequently
    • Do stretches and exercises more freely without office culture restrictions
    • Take breaks and even have a short nap
    • Temperature and lighting levels to your preference

    Disadvantages

    • Furniture not usually designed for office type work
    • Higher potential for distraction
    • Reduction in intra-office communication
    WORKING FROM HOME
    Most people that work from home use at least one computer, a telephone, and need a writing surface. Unless you already have a work desk most people have a kitchen/dining table. This gives you a flat surface and typically has plenty of space to spread your paperwork out. Dining chairs usually have a back rest and so is a good place to start. 
    However, dining chairs are not designed for sitting for long periods so remember get up and move around. 

    Note: Change positions if you prefer. Take the laptop to the couch and coffee table, stand at the kitchen counter or you can even sit on the floor for a short while. These positions are short term only (approximately 30 minutes). 
    If you have a separate keyboard and mouse and can plug it into your laptop that is even better. Elevate your laptop onto a pile of books/small box so that you look more directly ahead - click here for more details.  Any elevation of the screen is better and avoid looking down at the screen for prolonged periods if possible.  
    On the phone for a while and have the option, switch to the phone speaker mode so you do not have to hold the phone regularly. Even better get up and walk around if your work task only needs you to talk. 
    Modifications

    There is a multitude of lap desks/tray tables available on the market and are simple and relatively cheap ways to help support a laptop and mouse for the short term while in a chair or on the couch.
    For work desks that are more suitable for longer periods of sitting  - click here for more information. 
    Exercises and Stretching
    One the of greatest advantages of working from home is that you can perform exercises and feel more comfortable in the privacy of your own home. 
    You can check out typical office type exercises below. These exercises can be performed in the a usual office setting without too much restrictions. 
  • EXERCISE
    Sitting in an office for long periods of time can cause muscles and joints to become tight and sore. Therefore is it a good idea to move on regular intervals to prevent muscle tension, shortening of tissues and adopting poor postures.
    If possible (and if you are not already) get out the chair and go for a walk every hour for a few minutes.  Set a timer to remind you. See Apps.

    Understand that muscles lose strength and tone without regular exercising and although these exercises are meant to help prevent certain forms of discomfort and injury, they are no substitution for pursuing an active lifestyle.



  • WORKSITE EVALUATION
    A work-site evaluation will have a trained ergonomic specialist from the physical therapy department come to the work area and perform a comprehensive assessment. The setting, number of workers involved, and general complexity of the working environment determines how long the evaluation will take. Office type settings usually take no more than an hour for individuals, plus additional time to research and produce an evaluation with suggested recommendations.

    The employee and the supervisor will get a copy of the evaluation, unless the evaluation was performed on a department in general, where the supervisor will only get a copy.
    The physical therapy department takes no responsibility for enforcing any changes recommended, and is the responsibility of the individual and supervisor to decide whether to act on given recommendations.  

    WORKSITE REQUEST FORM 
    Read and complete the PDF and print/fax the form, send through inter-office mail or email the form. Once received, the employee and/or supervisor will be contacted to set up an appointment. Please allow 1-2 days for processing.