Office ergonomics: Fixing your workplace pain in the neck
“You shouldn’t have to tolerate pain to do your job,” says Rick Schultz of Environmental Health and Safety.
As manager of safety programs, general safety and accident investigation at EHS, Schultz’s responsibilities cover a variety of areas including lasers, storage tanks and automated external defibrillators (AEDs) on campus.
He’s also the person to call to mitigate or avoid pain and injuries caused by poor ergonomics in the lab or office.
Although it’s not well-known University-wide, since 2003 EHS has been offering free ergonomic assessments to Pitt employees. Schultz does two or three per week, visiting workers in their office habitat to see how they are interacting with their office equipment, then making suggestions for improvements.
In addition to individual assessments, Schultz said he can make presentations on improving workplace ergonomics for departments or other groups on campus.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most recent data, ergonomic injuries — including such ailments as carpal tunnel syndrome, repetitive strain injuries and back pain — accounted for 29 percent of the workplace injuries and illnesses requiring time away from work in 2010. There were 346,400 such injuries nationwide, with a median time away from work of eight days.
Schultz said it’s difficult to know how many people have health issues due to poor ergonomics at work. Some people simply suffer, thinking that not much can be done. And when an ailment does require action, it’s often handled through the worker’s doctor, making it difficult to track. “It’s virtually impossible to quantify what this is costing us,” he said.
Employees tend to force themselves to fit into their workplace environment, rather than design their workstation to fit, Schultz lamented, noting that many workers are using Cold War-era shell-case desks that predate the advent of desktop computers or sitting on obsolete office chairs with only four legs on the base, rather than today’s more stable five-leg versions.
Older workers tend to suffer more from poor ergonomics than do younger ones, he said. Likewise, people who are overweight, pregnant, very tall or very short also may have problems that can be remedied with better ergonomics.
Among the most frustrating parts of his work, Schultz said, is being unable to fix all of everyone’s ergonomic problems. But, he said, he typically can make the situation, if not perfect, much better.
A properly configured workstation and some common sense can go a long way when it comes to avoiding neck and shoulder problems or hand and wrist issues, he said.
Chairs, keyboard trays, document holders and computer monitors all need to be adjusted properly with the user seated in front of them in a neutral position. It’s not any one component, but the interrelatedness of them, all in conjunction with the user’s posture that can affect comfort and health, he said.
Frequent, short breaks to shift positions also are necessary — and often neglected, he added.
For the “typical” Pitt employee who spends a good deal of time at the computer keyboard, Schultz advises taking “microbreaks” to stretch every 20 minutes or so. There’s even software that will lock the keyboard after a certain amount of time or number of keystrokes to force a brief break for those who lose track of time then wonder why their neck or back aches after eight or 10 hours of inputting data.
Surprisingly few ergonomic assessment requests come from labs, even though workers there tend to spend long hours sitting at microscopes or microtomes or performing repetitive tasks such as pipetting, Schultz said. More often, the call comes from a “typical” Pitt employee who spends most of the day at a computer. Nine out of 10 requests come from women.
Some areas — nursing and public health among them — tend to be proactive in their attention to workplace ergonomics. Many employees are recommended to him through word of mouth. Once one person has an assessment, Schultz said, others from the same area often decide to get their own ergonomic evaluation.
Schultz said he’s seen some creative solutions in his travels: phone books or reams of paper being used to adjust the height of computer monitors, boxes serving as footrests. One woman raised her desk chair’s armrests to a comfortable height by taping blocks to them.
What causes Pitt employees to request an ergonomic assessment? “Mostly it’s pain,” he said, adding that while some requests are proactive efforts to avoid problems, more calls come at the urging of an employee’s doctor or physical therapist.
Schultz’s ergonomic assessments typically are brief, taking only 20-30 minutes. Armed with a tape measure, camera and goniometer, which measures angles, Schultz will visit the employee at his or her workplace to see the existing office setup and how the worker is interacting with it. He then completes an evaluation form and offers suggestions on how to improve the situation.
In many cases, some simple adjustments on the spot make a difference.
Other cases require more in-depth thought. “That’s why I take pictures,” he said, adding that while about three-quarters of cases he sees have straightforward solutions, “a lot of times I have to come back to the office and think about it.”
Schultz’s evaluation report includes options for improving the environment, including approximate costs. It’s then up to the department head to decide on the purchase.
Schultz said he tries to suggest choices in multiple price ranges from Volkswagen to Cadillac, recognizing that tight budgets can make it difficult for departments to make the purchases.
Schultz noted that national sources have calculated that the cost of an ergonomic chair — which can be hundreds of dollars — can be paid off in the equivalent of one year’s worth of increased productivity.
To help employees find the right solution, he keeps about a half-dozen different office chairs, loaning them in two-week stretches so people can try different models before making the investment.
Initially, a new chair, properly adjusted, may feel uncomfortable. “It takes about two weeks to start feeling like it’s supposed to,” he said.
Schultz follows up to see how the loaner chair is working out — making adjustments or arranging to test a different chair.
Many times, a single visit will do; other times, Schultz said, he’s made a half-dozen visits or more to finetune solutions.
Ervin Dyer, a senior editor at Pitt Magazine, said his discomfort was resolved with one visit and a few emails with Schultz. “He was very helpful.”
Dyer said he mentioned to his office administrator that he was noticing strain in his shoulders and back at the end of the workday. She suggested an ergonomic assessment. “I didn’t even know we had that,” he admitted.
During the assessment, he found he’d been lurching forward and sitting at an improper angle to his computer monitor.
“It made an immediate difference,” when Schultz centered the monitor and raised it to eye level, Dyer said.
In addition, because of Dyer’s height — 6 feet, 4 inches — his chair wasn’t fitting his lower back correctly and his desk needed to be raised to accommodate his knees. He was fortunate to find that the first loaner chair he tried offered better back support. “It forces me to sit in a position that’s ergonomically correct,” he said.
On a recent morning, Schultz stopped by the Graduate School of Public Health to see how some employees who had sought help were faring.
He visited with Kathy Dragone to see if her loaner chair and other improvements were working out.
As assistant to the dean, Dragone uses two computer monitors on her desktop.
She was experiencing a sore neck, Schultz said, something he attributed to the fact that although one monitor was centered on her desk, the other was set at an angle, forcing her to turn her neck hundreds of times a day.
Among his suggestions was a central arm that holds both monitors directly in front of her.
Dragone, who had her initial evaluation with Schultz about a month ago, said there has been some improvement now that she has the monitors adjusted to eye level and no longer is turning her neck to look from one monitor to the other.
She is still deciding on a chair. Now on her second loaner, she is delaying a decision until after she receives a keyboard tray in order to see how they work together.
Schultz also made a followup visit to Sally Berri Pratt, a new employee in GSPH’s epidemiology data center, who was testing out a chair and a document tray.
Pratt, who started at Pitt in mid-May, said she was experiencing severe upper back pain by her second day on the job. She mentioned it in passing to her supervisor, who directed her to Schultz.
Pratt said Schultz assessed her posture and how she sat in her chair during his initial visit. He made some recommendations and adjustments on the height of her monitor and keyboard and agreed that her chair was not optimal.
She later tested several sample chairs in Schultz’s office in the Public Safety Building. Schultz took measurements and recommended a chair for her to try.
At his two-week check in, Schultz made some additional adjustments, but Pratt still wasn’t quite happy with the height of the chair’s arms.
Schultz set about arranging for a different chair to test. “We will keep going until we find the right fit,” she said, optimistically.
Pratt said she suffered with pain for five years in her prior job, seeing a neurologist and physical therapist and never realizing the chair was the cause of her discomfort. She’d been told she “carried her stress in her neck.”
Switching chairs made a noticeable difference within a day. “I had no idea,” she said, adding that the health care costs might have been avoided had she known that something as simple as a chair could make a difference.
“I need to be cognizant of my posture, too,” she said, adding that she’s trying to avoid “hunching” at the keyboard and trying to heed Schultz’s advice to take a 20-second break every 20 minutes to rotate her shoulders and move around. She said she finds it easier to keep track of the time by shifting positions every half hour. “You know what you are supposed to do, but it’s easier said than done,” she admitted.
Attention to ergonomics pays off, Schultz attests. “The comfortable employee is more efficient and more effective, and the more effective, the more the University’s going to gain from it.”
Instructions for stretching exercises and tips for properly arranging home or office workstations can be found online by clicking on “ergonomics” at www.ehs.pitt.edu.
—Kimberly K. Barlow