Print Email Facebook Twitter Release Share Font Size: A A A A
Ergonomics help WSU employees keep work comfortable
Tuesday, June 5, 2012
By Emily Smudde, WSU News intern
PULLMAN, Wash. – Eight-hour days in an office environment can be grueling, depending on the job and how it is approached.
Sitting in the same chair all day can result in a stiff back and legs, as well as a feeling of exhaustion. However, those symptoms can be alleviated easily through the use of ergonomics.
Ergonomics is defined as assessing work-related factors that might pose a risk of musculoskeletal disorders, and providing recommendations to alleviate them, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. It is a science that helps fit the workplace conditions to the needs of the worker and of the worker’s body.
Essentially, it’s about making an employee as comfortable as possible.
Get up and move
Ed Havey, the previous Occupational Health and Safety Manager, has helped more than 800 Washington State University employees improve their workplace during his time here. He was the resident ergonomist, helping design work spaces that reduce injury and stress, before his departure in May.
"Ergonomics applies everywhere we interact with a system,” Havey explained. "We take advantage of things we do well and accommodate for what we don’t do well.”
Sitting is something ergonomists have to accommodate. Humans aren’t meant to sit for eight hours, Havey said. Sitting for long periods of time can lead "static loading,” which is when the muscles are placed into unnatural positions and held, he said.
"Sitting is static,” he said. "Muscles are designed to relax and contract. We’re meant to move, to get up and do other things throughout the day.”
Changing sitting postures and getting up out of the chair throughout the day is the best solution to back and leg pain, Havey said. Popular alternatives to sitting during the day are sitting on an exercise ball or standing.
Havey has certain reservations about these alternatives and will always suggest investing in an ergonomic chair, he said. Standing is a practice that he does promote whereas sitting on an exercise ball he does not. Exercise or physical training balls are good for exercising, studies have shown, but not for sitting.
However, everyone has their preferences and he won’t change what’s working.
"If someone is successful with one strategy,” he continued. "I’m not going to recommend that they change it.”
Inflatable balls offer popular alternative
One of the most popular solutions is using an exercise ball instead of an office chair. These large, inflatable balls come in different sizes, colors, and encourage constant movement throughout the day, which keeps the body from becoming static. They range in price from $10 to $30.
Three years ago, Lynn Druffel, a fiscal technician at WSU, began sitting on an exercise ball at the suggestion of her physical therapist. Her therapist suggested it as a solution to her lower back and leg pain.
"I started alternating sitting in my chair and sitting on my ball,” Druffel said. "Pretty soon I was only using my ball. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
The ball helps cushion her spine and improves her back muscles, Druffel said. It requires balance and leg strength to stay upright, but Druffel said it’s easy to manage after practice.
Druffel’s ball and positive results soon inspired others to follow suit. Ami Libey, another fiscal technician and Druffel’s office neighbor, purchased hers about a month ago.
"It’s more comfortable than a chair,” Libey said, "and it helps improve my posture, which my chair never did.”
Jessica Johnson also saw the benefits of Druffel’s exercise ball and thought it would be a helpful tool for her training. In May Johnson ran a half-marathon in Portland, Ore.
"It helps train your abs and improves your balance,” Johnson said, "which helped in May.”
In addition to reducing back pain, toning muscles and increasing balance, sitting on a ball helps keep you alert and, according to users, is fun.
Johnson’s co-workers often look over and see her bouncing up and down with a big smile on her face.
"It’s so much fun,” Johnson laughed.
Standing and sitting
Another solution to avoid the problems caused by sitting is to stand.
Whenever an employee becomes interested in standing during the work day, Havey will direct them to Danielle Hess, the division chief in the WSU Division Office of the Attorney General’s Office and the user of a sit-stand unit.
Over time, Hess developed a herniated disc in her back, which makes it hard for her to sit during the day. Hess began looking for a unit in 2008 to help deal with her sore back.
"A lot of people who have back issues will come and see me,” Hess said. Often, they want to come and see what exactly a sit-stand unit is.
When entering her office, it looks as if her computer screen and keyboard are perched on a large, mechanical arm. Pressing a button on the front of the unit will slowly raise the computer until it’s at the perfect height for Hess to stand. Units like this cost between $1,000 and $1,500.
"Some days, I just prefer to stand,” she explained. "Standing up also makes you more alert and more focused.”
Guy Ellibee, an executive tech administrator for the Office of the President, also prefers to stand while he works. However, Ellibee’s solution is different in that his entire desktop can be moved up and down.
Ellibee has no injuries that make it difficult for him to sit. He just prefers moving around rather than sitting all day.
"I just don’t like to sit for that long,” Ellibee said.
The lifting desk sits in the corner of his office and curves into a U-shape, creating a perfect nook for Ellibee to stand in. With a computer on each side, the desk gives Ellibee the freedom to move and turn without feeling constrained. Similar to Hess’s device, a switch will move the desk, but he says it rarely goes down.
"If I want to sit,” Ellibee said, gesturing casually to an armchair in the corner, "I’ll sit over there.”
Of all the available options, Havey still suggests an ergonomic chair. A well-designed chair provides lumbar support, allows the arms and shoulders to relax, and maintains the lumbar curve in the back. These chairs vary in cost from $500 and up, but it is a worthy investment according to Havey.
Although Havey has many clients who have been successful sitting, standing, or using exercise balls, he always encourages new clients to question their options.
"When new things come out, people need to have a healthy skepticism,” Havey explained.
And, if all else fails, his suggestion is always to keep moving, which costs nothing.