Guerrilla Ergonomics

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted February 28, 2001
by David Haskin

The truth hurts. And the truth is, businesses and employees are paying an awful price for the technology on which they've become so dependent. They pay in aches, pains, doctor's bills, missed days, decreased productivity, and, of course, dollars.

They're all the result of accidents. They occur from typing at a computer all day, speaking on the phone, or working on an assembly line. Musculo-skeletal disorders (MSDs) like carpal tunnel syndrome are among the most well known, while repetitive stress injuries (RSIs) can be caused by any number of routine actions.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration estimates that companies with 20 or fewer employees see325,000 of their employees suffer from MSDs each year. Among all companies, according to OSHA, the cost of such injuries, including productivity losses and worker's compensation claims, totals $45 billion a year.

Now the agency has decided it has to save businesses from themselves. New federal ergonomic regulations define how management must protect workers and respond to complaints. The rules, ratified in record time, are among the most controversial regulations of any sort introduced in years.

Small businesses are probably hurt the worst by such injuries: They are as likely to occur in small offices as large ones, but smaller companies are less able to absorb the cost of health care, temporary replacement workers, workers' compensation, and employee retraining (not to mention lost business). At the same time, these businesses are also less equipped to implement OSHA's required policies.

Because OSHA's strict guidelines only kick in when there's a complaint, many experts say the best way to avoid trouble is to ensure that your employees' health and safety isn't jeopardized. That means taking whatever steps you can right now to create a sound ergonomic environment. Making your office safer and employees more healthy will keep inspectors off your back and may even improve your bottom line.

Still, that doesn't mean it's easy.

The Controversy
Until now, employees and their bosses have been only dimly aware of the need to deal with certain types of injuries. Sure, they're bothersome, but who has the time to treat them? The government has delivered its answer.

Ergonomics is the science of fitting tools and jobs to people and of preventing injuries caused by repetitive motion, akward posture, force, or vibration. As OSHA developed its regulations, business interests were pitted against safety concerns in a debate over what exactly this means. The businesses claimed the rules could cripple small companies, and questioned how precise such policies could be given the uniqueness of every job and worker. They also argued that companies shouldn't be held responsible for the way employees choose to contort their bodies.

But ergonomics experts believe a good policy is good business. "Ergonomics is a win-win situation for employers and employees," says Professor Marv Dainoff, a Miami University of Ohio psychology professor who specializes in ergonomics. He and his colleague, visiting assistant instructor Niles Davis, insist that even though ergonomic measures cost money, businesses will end up way ahead.

"There is no difference between good ergonomics, good quality control, and high production," Davis says. "If somebody's sitting at a desk and they're in pain, you can kiss production goodbye." Davis says an ergonomics program he started while working for a small manufacturing company was the key to the business's success.

Everybody wants a safer workplace, but some business advocates think the rules are tailored to put folks like Davis (and a few thousand litigators) in the financial pink.

"It should be called the OSHA Lawyers' Full Employment Act," says Edwin Foulke, himself an attorney who specializes in OSHA-related issues for the Jackson Lewis law firm based in Washington, D.C. "I would have liked to have seen voluntary guidelines. Most employers want to do the right thing, but this will just be a big record-keeping exercise."

Foulke and other skeptics claim there isn't enough science yet to prescribe precise fixes for problems, a contention Dainoff vehemently disagrees with.

Dainoff says numerous studies, including those he conducted himself, prove that productivity increases and direct expenses such as workers' compensation decrease when ergonomic measures are adopted. For instance, he cited a study by the Army Corps of Engineers that measured the rate of processing requisition forms. The study found an increase in productivity for the entire unit, says Dainoff.

"There are dozens of examples of these studies," he claims.

The Problem
Before business owners can sort out where they stand in the debate, they need to understand more about the injuries themselves. Without proper ergonomic measures, many employees run the risk of incurring MSDs and RSIs caused by workplace activities. Both can affect office-bound personnel as well as assembly line and other factory floor workers.

On assembly lines and other factory floor jobs, the problem often is caused by repetitive motions and the worker's positioning in relation to machinery. OSHA has traditionally regulated manual labor closely and left office workers alone. With the new regulations, that too has changed.

Injuries suffered by office workers differ from those of manual laborers. "In an office environment, it tends to be things like tendonitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, and sore necks, backs, and shoulders," says Charlie Kopin, director of an off-site service for Industrial Health Care of Windsor, Conn., who evaluates sites where work-related injuries have occurred. Such injuries are frequently caused from using poorly positioned computing equipment or from talking on the phone for long periods; Kopin cites the notorious habit of cradling a phone between the head and shoulder.

For businesses, the costs come in two forms: lost productivity and increased healthcare bills. According to OSHA, MSDs cause 34 percent of illness-related lost workdays in businesses large and small. Each year, they cost companies between $15 - $20 billion in worker's compensation alone.

The Rules
Initially, OSHA won't require businesses to do anything more than post basic information in a prominent place. When someone reports an injury, however, it serves as what bureaucrats call a "trigger," and the rules kick in. These are extremely complex, but in general deal with how to fix the problems and treat employees who develop MSDs or RSIs.

"It's only after a problem has occurred that you absolutely need a strategy to improve it," Kopin says. Then the OSHA rules prescribe two approaches. The first is a complex process that requires copious documentation, Foulke says. The six broad areas of the process are management, leadership, employee participation, MSD management, job hazard analysis, and hazard reduction measures. In plain English, that means you must keep track of what caused the problem, figure out how to fix it, and make sure that the same changes are made for all other workers with identical workspaces and responsibilities. You also need to ensure cooperation from both employees and management. Showing OSHA that you've complied with each of these requirements calls for a lot of record-keeping and documentation, according to Foulke.

Businesses can, however, take what OSHA calls a "quick fix" if there are only one or two incidents of the MSD. This costs less, so many businesses will prefer it. It essentially requires identifying the problem, rectifying it with employee input, and then implementing improvements.

In addition to mandating problem resolution, the rules dictate how companies must treat injured employees. For example, employers must pay injured employees for as many as 90 days if they are unable to work. Again, critics such as Foulke complain that this part of the rules imposes an undue burden on business. Advocates, however, claim that if the work conditions cause injuries, the employer must support the employee.

Business managers are wondering what OSHA's rule will mean to them in the short term. It's important to note that a grandfather clause covers companies that already have an ergonomics program in place. Skeptics claim there are so many exceptions to the clause that many companies won't qualify. Still, it can't hurt.

The Plan
The new regulations make it even more important to prevent problems before they occur. "Typically, a little problem grows into a big problem, and these problems don't go away on their own," Kopin says. "People should treat the problems when they're small or before they occur."

There is no magic formula, no single thing you can do to protect workers from injury. Nor are there model ergonomic plans as there are, say, model contracts. But, there are general principles you can put into action and fit to each worker.

"Economy of motion is essential," Kopin says. "Avoid injuries by not overworking the employee. The right amount of work is what's needed to get the job done. Not a bit more."

In order to make appropriate adjustments, be honest about where you may have problems, and review how each employee does his or her job. Ask what problems they have and look for trends among each type of worker. Then, use the information you've gathered to set priorities. Some companies hire ergonomic consultants for this, but Dainoff urges caution to companies considering hiring one.

"There are a lot of ergonomic consultants, but there's no quality control," he cautions. There is, however, a certification board, so you should hire only a certified ergonomist.

Kopin says there's a lot you can do on your own before bringing in expert help. "Look at how a person sits at their desk and how they work and ask them if it is comfortable," he says. "If not, ask what hurts and figure out what needs to be done to fix the problem." Again, the solution for each worker may be slightly different. For a few suggestions specific to computer workstations see the previous page.

Kopin says that typical modifications in the office include adjusting monitor heights or laying out the work surface differently. Davis says studies indicate that workstations with computers are often u-shaped so that everything is within easy reach. Dainoff summarizes ergonomics with a single word: adjustability.

"You have to take into account the range of human sizes and shapes," Dainoff says. "You can't do that unless you adjust things." Adjustments can include chair height, the angle of the arms while typing, and the height of a machinist in relation to his or her machine. When buying equipment and furniture, make sure they are adjustable. The more types of adjustments you can make, the better.

You can also save money by thinking creatively and spending wisely. "We bought desks for office personnel from Sam's Club, just plain old desks, then adjusted them to make them more comfortable," Davis said. "In the shop, we had palettes built so the workers could adjust their height in relation to the machine. It was like guerilla ergonomics."

Dainoff estimates that it typically costs $150 or less to retrofit a computer workstation to be ergonomically correct. Sometimes, there is no cost at all. Kopin notes that "the solution can be as simple as stacking phone books under a monitor to align it to the proper height."

The Follow-Through
Another part of your ergonomic plan should be to educate employees about ergonomics and encourage them to discuss job-related discomforts with you, Davis says. "In our shop, each employee was allowed to make some variance in the work flow so they could use other muscles," Davis says. "We trained them and empowered them to make little changes."

Similarly, in the office, Dainoff notes, if somebody uses bifocals and their monitor is too high, they'll have to tip their head back to see, which can cause neck pain. An employee educated about ergonomics will spot the problem and make suggestions to fix it. Finally, make sure that employees know how to adjust their equipment.

"One company had given a vice president an ergonomic chair and he told me he thought ergonomics was crap because he couldn't get comfortable," Dainoff says. "I turned the chair over and there was masking tape still over the height control. I ripped the tape off, showed him how to adjust it and, when we were done--I'll never forget the look on his face--he was so pleased. Good chairs help, but you have to start with training."

When problems do occur, fix them quickly. Your employees' health is at stake, as is your company's productivity. Also, you run the risk of running afoul of OSHA. Dainoff suggests designating somebody in the company to understand ergonomics and make sure that sound ergonomic principles are followed. It's worth it, he says, to treat ergonomics as an investment in your company's infrastructure.

"Compare the cost of ergonomics to the cost of upgrading hardware and software," he says. "If you improve ergonomics, you'll get more productivity. I'm not sure you always can say that about faster computers."

Ergonomics Checklist
There is no magic formula for avoiding workplace aches and pains: the solutions are as varied as the problems and your employees. Nevertheless, here are some general guidelines for a comfortable computer workstation. While these tips won't prevent all problems, they are an excellent place to start.

1. Make sure the top of the computer monitor screen is at eye level, or slightly lower for bifocal users.

2. Make sure the screen is between 15 and 32 inches from your eye.

3. Position the screen so it is free from glare and reflections

4. Use a document holder so that documents are close and at the same level as the screen.

5. Make sure documents are properly lighted.

6. Wrists should be straight and horizontal to the work surface for typing.

7. Use a padded wrist rest in front of the keyboard.

8. Try elevating the back of the keyboard so that the front tips down. If that fails, try a so-called ergonomic keyboard.

9. Make sure there is enough knee clearance under the table or desk.

10. Keep feet flat on the floor or on a footrest or special floor mat.

11. Arms should hang loosely and comfortably at your sides, with elbows at right angles during typing.

12. Sit back in the chair with the lower back supported by the chair's natural curve.

13. Give workers who do a lot of typing frequent short breaks to rest muscles.

14. If the worker is on the phone frequently, provide telephone headsets.

15. Keep your "reach envelope" close to the body. This refers to the ability to easily reach everything used on a regular basis, such as the mouse.

16. Ask employees which tasks contribute to pain and what changes will make a difference. Encourage workers to report symptoms right away.

Getting Started
The following are Web sites that can help you understand ergonomics, the debate over OSHA's rules, and what you must do to comply with them.

OSHA Ergonomics Final Rule: