Our March Lunch & Learn was centered around the theme of physical health. Aaron Unger set up in our lounge with a standing desk, monitor, mouse, keypad (the works!) ready to tell us all about how we can work safely in the office. Aaron is the Project Owner for our FreshWorks “mines team”, a provincial government project to streamline and integrate all of the systems in place to track mines in British Columbia.
So, where did a Project Owner from a mines team learn so much about ergonomics?
As it turns out, Aaron has a kinesiology degree from the University of Saskatchewan. Aaron actually started his career with the BC Provincial Government as a Senior Ergonomics Inspector for Mining. In this role, he assessed different working conditions and made recommendations to employees based on their individual needs. It was when he was in this role that he was asked to speak about the software used by his team, and the pain points they were experiencing with it. After that meeting, Aaron was given the role as Project Owner for the Mines Project!
What is Ergonomics?
Think of Ergonomics as designing work to fit the worker that is doing it!
“Designing the work” can involve the work station, the equipment used in the job, or any other physical aspect needed to complete the job.
This definition may be surprising, because especially as office employees, you see a lot of “ergonomic” chairs, mice, desks, clothing, and more. We learned from Aaron that marketing something as “ergonomic” is completely unregulated, and usually it’s just a buzzword. Using ergonomic in this sense is basically saying that the chair was “engineered” - which is kind of implied!
Ergonomics also can exist in a broader context than just in the workplace, and you can learn more about that from the International Ergonomics Association.
This kind of injury can happen by doing something that doesn’t fit your body, often repeatedly straining your body in a specific way. There are several common types of musculoskeletal injuries, all of which are typical injuries for office workers, and those who may spend hours on end at their desks, like our FreshWorks team:
“-itis” refers to the inflammation of something, and tendonitis specifically is the inflammation of the tendon. Aaron explained to us that this injury can occur when operating a tendon in your body in a way that causes it to inflame, most commonly when operating it on an angle repeatedly. Using your wrists on a straight plane will be less abrasive, and will be much less likely to develop a musculoskeletal injury over time.
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS)
When tendons become inflamed, they can also swell, which causes everything in a limb to have less space to move naturally. The Carpal Tunnel is a narrow passageway in the wrist. The nerves in the space become compressed by the tendons, which causes numbness, tingling, and pain.
Musculoskeletal injuries can be acute, and can also be chronic. The acute variety develops all at once, typically from a fall or accident. Chronic musculoskeletal injuries, however, develop gradually over time.
Chronic musculoskeletal injuries can occur from repeated tasks that strain your body, for example, carpal tunnel can be developed repeated wrist movements at unnatural angles from keyboard typing. These injuries can also develop over long, or even short periods of time, depending on the activity and the strain.
Recognizing the Signs
Aaron explained that our bodies warn us when we are at risk of developing these injuries, and it is important to listen and adjust before it’s too late. He explained that injuries usually develop over the following stages:
Stage 1: Early
Aches and pains occur only while at work
Discomfort goes away when away from work
No physical signs of injury
May last for weeks or months
No effect on activities away from work
Stage 2: Intermediate
Aches continue after work but disappear with longer absences from work such as weekends, and holidays.
You cannot do as much work as you previously were capable of
Some duties outside of work may be affected
May be signs of damage
Pain may last for weeks or months even if the problem has been corrected
Stage 3: Late
Pain is constant both at work and home – almost all activities are affected
General weakness is present
Pain will restrict movement, even light work will cause discomfort
Some damage may be irreversible
The problem may never be corrected even with treatment
All of these factors contribute to the likelihood of developing a musculoskeletal injury:
Amount of force needed to perform all or part of a task
Awkward posture (arm, wrist, neck, leg, back, etc.) required by the job or job task
Amount of repetition in the job
Vibration, whether applied to the whole body, or specifically in one limb.
Office Ergonomics to the Rescue!
Below is a model of the work system, that shows how different elements of work relate to the worker.. Employees are the centre of the diagram, because you cannot physically alter them. You can, however, physically alter other things around them to enhance their work, such as their environment, their tasks, their workstation, and their work structure. Designing these things to fit the employee will make the work more ergonomic.
Tools Aren’t One Size Fits All
If you google ergonomic equipment, you get wacky stuff like this:
But now that we know that the definition of ergonomics is tailoring work to suit your individual body - what is this crazy set-up helping, exactly?
This mouse might be great for people with wrist and shoulder injuries, because it minimizes movement of the arm, and maximizes movement of the hand. But if you had a hand injury, this mouse would not be for you.
This mouse is designed to minimize wrist movement and maximize arm movement, benefiting those with wrist injuries.
Each of these designs will have positive and negative effects on the body in different ways, especially after prolonged and repetitive use. Which design is best depends entirely on the person!
Mouse and Keyboard:
Do’s and Don’ts
As Aaron explained, it is extremely important to position your body in natural angles to avoid joint inflammation. One of the most common instances of joint inflammation in an office environment is with the mouse and keyboard at your desk.
Your keyboard and mouse should be just at or slightly below elbow height
The mouse should be placed near the end of the keyboard
Keep wrists in a neutral position; avoid reaching forward or to the side when using the mouse.
Upper arm should be relaxed at the side of your body.
Working with wrists bent more than a few degrees up, down or to the left or right can lead to problems
Don’t reach for your mouse
Do place your mouse on the same level as your keyboard
Regarding wrist rests:
Unless used properly are more of a danger than a preventative tool
They are not to be used on your WRIST, rather on the fatty pad in the palm of your hand, and only occasionally
What to Look for in Ergonomic chairs
There are many expensive brands out there advertised as ergonomic chairs. However, Aaron informed us that a chair is only ergonomic for an individual if it has the following four features:
Height adjustable lumbar support
Adjustable armrests (if desired)
Adjustable seat and back height
Adjustable seat and back tilt
If an individual can customize these four aspects of a chair to their specific physical needs, then the chair can be considered effectively ergonomic!
Setting up your chair: Step by Step
Because the chair is only as good as you make it, here are a few tricks we learned to configure it to your body:
Stand in front of the chair,
Adjust seat height so that the highest point of the seat is just below the kneecap
Sit on the chair & keep your feet flat on the floor
Sit so at least a clenched fist fits between the front edge of the seat & the lower part of the legs
Adjust the backrest of the chair so it supports the hollow in the lower back (lumbar support)
Properly adjusted lumbar support puts the back in it’s most natural position
Keep the backrest tilted back between 90 and 100 degrees
Feet on Floor / Footrest
Feet on the floor or footrest
Knees at approx. 90°
Wrapping feet around chair legs puts pressure on the knees
Unsupported feet puts pressure on the lower back
Elbow angle should be at, or slightly greater than, 90°
Adjust armrests just below your elbow height
Ensure shoulders are relaxed & elbows/upper arms are close to your body
Ensure that you know how to properly adjust your chair
Expensive chairs are a waste if not used properly to fit you!
People who are very tall, very short, or very large often require a non-standard chair
People who have had a severe neck injury may require a high back chair
Your Work Surface
You’ll need to create a proper reach zone to stay ergonomically safe:
A good “reach zone” is achieved by placing the most frequently used items closest to the employee.
Less frequently used items should be placed further away from you.
Rarely used items should be placed furthest away.
Don’t sit and reach for heavy or awkward items. Place them at a distance and walk to retrieve them.
Adjust Your Monitor Too
Here’s how to know you have the correct monitor height:
The natural line of sight is slightly downwards, not straight across!
Top line of text should be about 2”–6” below eye level
Avoid placing monitor other objects as this usually raises the monitor too high.
People using bifocals usually need the monitor placed as low as possible.
By the end of Aaron’s Lunch & Learn, we were all adjusting our chairs, collapsing the little stands on the back of our keyboards, and being more conscious of our bodies during the work day. We learned what can be harmful to our bodies, how to identify the signs that we are at risk for developing a musculoskeletal injury, and how to adjust the work to suit our individual needs. Hopefully you learned something useful too!
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