5 Steps to Better Ergonomics — and Morale

Spend enough money on ergonomic chairs, keyboards and computer screens, and you can kiss your company’s repetitive-strain injuries and related productivity losses goodbye. Or so the conventional wisdom goes. But the conventional wisdom is only half right. Sure, investing in the latest technology and furniture is important. But there’s more.

“Most businesses focus only on machinery and hardware when they talk about ergonomics — desks, tables, adjustable keyboards, furniture, and so forth,” says Richard Rossiter, chief executive officer of Rossiter & Associates, a Cincinnati health-care consultancy specializing in repetitive stress injuries and connective tissue techniques. “Why do businesses spend thousands of dollars maintaining computers and equipment and yet invest nothing to maintain the constantly moving bodies of the people who do the work?”

Indeed, the second half of the equation is the human one — your employees. You can equip them with the latest technology, yes. But if you don’t address ergonomics training as part of the employee wellness equation, and if you’re not fully committed to making employee wellness an intractable part of your corporate culture, you may miss out on the benefits of ergonomics. And the benefits can be considerable.

Study after study suggests a strong link between better ergonomics — or ergo, as it’s called in the industry— and improved productivity. One of the latest, a 2004 poll conducted by Microsoft Hardware, found that nine out of 10 employees said the design setup of their workstation directly affected their ability to be productive at work.

Dennis Downing, president of Future Industrial Technologies, an industrial injury prevention training company in Santa Barbara, Calif., reports that one of his clients, a large newspaper, cut 1,000 lost workdays in 2003 because of an ergonomic training program. “Effective ergo programs need to start at the top of the organization,” says Shannon Powell, president of Active Ergonomics, Inc., an ergonomic consulting firm. “As long as a company needs people to successfully grow their business, the focus should be on ergonomics and wellness.” How do you go beyond the technology to implement a successful ergonomics program at your company?

1. Be proactive, not reactive. Many ergonomics programs are put into place only after workers show up wearing braces and popping aspirin like candy. That’s a shortsighted approach. “With proper training and instruction, workers are able to control many of these exposures (to potential injuries),” says H. Tim Frazer, a practice leader for ergonomics at Philadelphia-based ESIS Risk Control Services. One great way to make sure you’re being proactive is to consult many of the free online resources available to your company, Frazer says. For example, if you’re concerned about ergonomics at computer workstations, consult the Occupational Safety & Health Administration’s Web site on the topic (www.osha.gov/SLTC/etools/computerworkstations), which includes a handy checklist to make sure you’re not exposing your employees to unnecessary risks.

2. Train your employees; and listen to their feedback. Another way to ensure that ergonomics becomes part of your corporate culture is to train your employees to properly use their new, ergonomically-correct equipment. That’s the advice of Alexandra Charish, an ergonomics specialist based in Los Angeles. Any training, she says, should include asking your employees whether they are currently experiencing any pain or discomfort while they work. If so, you should consider making immediate modifications to the work environment. “Employees in a small business are the most valuable asset and are often friends and family,” she says. “Matching tasks more effectively to body height, arm lengths, and choosing a different tool or instrument, can make a big difference.”

3. Don’t dictate workplace policies — collaborate on them. “The best environment to implement an ergonomics program is where the workers feel part of the process,” says Scott Bautch, past president of the American Chiropractic Association’s Council on Occupational Health. “The worst environment is where processes are generally dictated.”He says finding problems — faulty office furniture, a flickering screen — is relatively easy. Switching to new processes and equipment, and at the same time avoiding making employees even more prone to injury, can be a challenge. Bautch has studied ergonomics programs that have failed, and he said the likeliest cause is a top-down order to improve ergonomics that comes as an afterthought and isn’t part of a comprehensive wellness plan.

4. Know when you need outside professional help. Recognize that some workplace ergonomics challenges are too difficult for you to solve on your own. “Some workplace situations are inherently problematic, and you may need professional assistance to solve them,” says Brian Stonecipher, human-factors engineer at Design Continuum, a design company in West Newton, Mass. “Ergonomists are professionally trained to assess problems and develop solutions that address them.”Where do you find them? Organizations such as Human Factors and Ergonomics Society offer directories of consulting members. But is it worth the price? “Don’t look at ergonomic solutions as simply a cost,” Stonecipher says. “Look at it as an opportunity to fix a problem, reduce [health-care] costs and increase productivity.”

5. Go beyond the standard workplace regulations. Showing commitment to employee wellness can have a profound effect on office morale. Erick Petersen, vice president at Planar Systems, a Beaverton, Ore., company that manufactures flat-panel displays, says obeying the rules is not enough. “Take it upon yourself to make sure you’re in accordance with workplace regulations set forth by the state,” but then take it a step further, Petersen advises. Don’t just encourage your workers to sit up straight in front of their monitors, for example; ensure that they are getting the best screens available, he says. That sends the message that you care, which can lift morale and productivity. These steps — from training to collaborating on solutions — may be expensive to you in the short run. “But not addressing ergonomics because it’s too expensive,” says Ronald Scott Hoechstetter, a clinical educational specialist and ergonomics consultant at CarePartners Health Services in Asheville, N.C., “is one of the biggest mistakes a small business can make.”

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