Beacon Mutual is proud to present Santa's Ergonomic Tips:
Many of us experience aches and pains at some point at the workstation. In fact, it is not unsual for some to endure minor aches and pains each and every day to some degree, especially as we age. Our natural instinct is to seek a pain-free homeostatic state by shifting our body away from discomfort. Surprisingly, this innate response is often suppressed by the pressures to fulfill timely work demands. In the short term, working through the discomfort may seem natural, acceptable, and sometimes even necessary. In the long-term, however, lingering pain should be avoided and managed since it can potentially lead to deleterious effects on the body.
There is vast evidence to suggest that ergonomic risk factors can cause or contribute to pain and discomfort at the workstation. There is also evidence that non-ergonomic risk factors such as comorbidities, underlying preexisting conditions, poor health choices, and sedentary lifestyles also play a significant role and cannot be ignored.
There are several ergonomic risk factors that we in the workplace can often control. In general, ergonomic risk factors include elements of excessive force, high repetition, contact stress, awkward posture, and static posture. The three most modifiable workstation risk factors in an office environment are static posture, awkward posture, and contact stress. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), contact stress is the rubbing or pressing of the body against an external surface which can irritate nerves and constrict blood vessels over time (1). Although contact stress is a significant risk factor and should not be ignored, only static and awkward postures are discussed in this article.
One of the more significant risk factors to consider at the workstation is static posture. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) defines static work posture as, “very few changes in body position” (2). Static posture is inherent at the computer workstation because of the sedentary nature of the work.
Recently I was fortunate enough to discuss ergonomics with a leading expert in the field, Santa Claus; a topic both he and I enjoy. After explaining to him the ergonomic challenges and static postures we face here at Beacon, Santa explained that he too is exposed to static postures from delivering packages and toys around the world. Santa believes the discomfort he occasionally experiences is in part, directly correlated to the static postures he is exposed to at his own “workstation” (figure 1).
Santa and the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety both strongly support behavioral intervention strategies, including movement and exercise, to prevent or reduce muscle pain from static work postures. Behavioral strategies include taking micro-breaks, moving, and conducting workstation exercises on a regular basis; all equally important. During the interview with Santa, he shared his commitment to ergonomics by sharing how he has taken action against undesirable static low back postures at his own workstation. He had his elves build him a sit-stand workstation to fit inside his sleigh so he can alternate his sitting and standing time. When asked if there is any clearly defined statement in the literature to support a recommended sitting and standing time, his answer was, “ho, ho, ho…no, no, no”. Santa said he uses the following guideline that he learned when delivering packages to Cornell University: sit for 20 minutes, stand for 8 minutes, and walk/stretch for 2 minutes (3). Santa was also kind enough to share some of his exclusive, top-secret exercises that he performs every Christmas Eve to combat static work postures (figure 2).
Despite Santa’s efforts to remain healthy from his patented exercises, the question remains, do exercises really make a difference in the office setting? A 2002 study published in the Journal of the American Physical Therapy Association looked at the short-term effects of workstation exercise on computer users. The authors found a decrease in musculoskeletal discomfort and a reduction in static work postures in workers who were given workstation exercises (4). A 2014 study also found similar short-term results with the introduction of workstation exercises in the office (5). Studies like these support the argument for integrating workstation exercise at your own workstation to address discomfort and static postures, at least short-term. During the interview with Santa, he wanted to stress that he has never missed a day of work in his life and he credits this, at least in part, to his frequent postural changes and his secret exercise routine. In fact, he stopped me twice during the interview to stretch!
The second type of postural risk in the workplace is awkward posture. Santa was willing during his interview to give his opinion on awkward postures and share an old picture of himself climbing down a chimney (figure 3). Posture is considered awkward, “the more a joint deviates from the neutral (natural) position…” (6). The greater the deviation from neutral, the greater the potential risk for discomfort and injury. An awkward posture is most effectively addressed through workstation modifications called engineering controls. An engineering control is simply to provide the right equipment for the job to help advance and improve workstation design. An example of an engineering control at a workstation is to use an articulating keyboard tray and position it correctly. Santa asked that I share a picture of a recent engineering control that he implemented to address his past awkward and unsafe work practices with chimney entry (figure 4). How Santa gets this hoisting equipment to each household still remains unclear but luckily Santa attended the Aerial Lift Safety and the OSHA 10-Hour Construction Safety Course at Beacon. I reminded Santa to check out the other Loss Prevention seminars as well and provided him the following link to register: Safety Seminars.
Given Santa’s vast ergonomic expertise, he was asked during the interview if he was aware of any good outcome studies that supported the use of workstation modifications to address awkward work postures for computer users. Santa, with all his wisdom, of course, cited a study that looked at the benefits of ergonomic workstation modifications on sedentary office workers after one month (5). The authors of this study reported a reduction in short-term musculoskeletal pain at one month with simple workstation modifications. The bottom line, however, as admitted by Santa, is that both static and awkward posture should be addressed together to help minimize the long-term risks of workstation discomfort and pain.
In the end, the interview with Santa went very well. We discussed work-related musculoskeletal injuries in the workplace as they pertain to static and awkward postures. He explained that when these two postural risks exist then workstation modifications and behavioral changes are strongly encouraged. This advice he obtained in part from attending Beacon’s Job Safety Analysis and Office Ergonomics seminars and from knowledge gained through individual ergonomic assessments and training. During our conversation, Santa appeared concerned regarding a recent uptick in work-related elf injuries so I encouraged him to attend the upcoming Stay-at-Work/Return-to-Work seminar at Beacon to help the toymakers get back to work safely and quickly. He agreed to sign up because he needs to retain his most valuable resource: the skills, knowledge, and experience of his elves.
At the conclusion of the interview, Santa reiterated that both non-ergonomic and ergonomic factors can contribute to workstation discomfort but declined to elaborate on the non-ergonomic factors. He said to address awkward and static postures by setting up the workstation correctly, taking breaks, exercising, and alternating work routines as these are some of the best methods to remain healthy and productive. He also said to avoid contact stress when feasible. Santa finished with this quote, “Even if you don’t believe in Santa, at least believe in the benefits of ergonomics!” Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!'
Beacon Mutual offers a full menu of ergonomic services – performed by trained and certified ergonomists – to meet the needs of Rhode Island companies from small to large. These services are provided to policyholders at no additional cost. Click the link below to learn more.