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October 9, 2014

Oh, my aching back: How to avoid feeling miserable at work

Don’t hold the receiver in the crook of your neck. If you’re on the phone a lot, use a headset and avoid resting your elbow on the hard desk surface.

Don’t hold the receiver in the crook of your neck. If you’re on the phone a lot, use a headset and avoid resting your elbow on the hard desk surface.

There’s no reason to suffer at your work station, says Richard Schultz, safety program manager in Pitt’s Department of Environmental Health and Safety.

One of the most important steps you can take is to pay attention to the ergonomics of how your work station is set up, and how you move while sitting or standing there. The ergonomics — the science of work —can help relieve or prevent pain or injuries related to your daily tasks.

Schultz spoke to about 60 people in the William Pitt Union for the latest Staff Association Council seminar. Nearly all volunteered that they were experiencing some physical discomfort in the workplace.

He displayed a picture of a typical metal kneehole desk at Pitt. “This desk was built before computers were even thought of,” he noted.

“Chairs are one of the biggest problems we have,” he added. Good, adjustable chairs can cost $350-$750, and they only have a 10-year life span. But the University keeps its chairs for 25 years, he estimated.

Schultz said the top injury among workers is cumulative trauma disorder, also called a repetitive stress injury. It typically is developed over a long period of time through repetition and stress, and can affect any part of the body, from neck to back, wrists or elbows. Such injuries are not just related to computer use. Eighty percent of people in the U.S. will have back problems some time in life, he noted, especially those who lift, carry or squat in the course of their work. Neck injuries from lengthy phone use are common as well.

The No. 1 risk factor is repetition, and at the University, computers often are the culprit. Ten thousand people at Pitt work on computers daily, processing data, researching and writing. Although ergonomics is a consideration in any office remodeling Pitt does, he said, “when there are cost overruns on the remodeling, the first thing that gets cut is the office furniture,” resulting in the purchase of less expensive, less adjustable models or the reuse of older items.

The second highest risk factor for office injuries is the amount of force exerted. Other areas of risk include posture (especially in a chair), vibration (a larger problem in industrial settings), temperature and lighting.

An individual’s physical condition may create an additional risk factor. Those with a degenerative disorder, on certain medications or with misaligned fracture repairs may have a particularly tough time at repetitive work tasks. Women have a significantly higher proportion of work injuries due to hormonal factors and their musculoskeletal build, Schultz said. Obesity, age and other lifestyle differences are factors as well, including hobbies. Schultz has found that gardeners and musicians, for example, are prone to pain from repetitious activities.


The first step of ergonomic analysis is to adjust your computer components and chair, as well as your posture.

The first step of ergonomic analysis is to adjust your computer components and chair, as well as your posture.

The first step of ergonomic analysis is to adjust your computer components and chair, as well as your posture.

The ideal work station will allow you to sit with your spine erect and head and neck aligned, your back against the chair’s backrest. Your arms should be at a 90-110 degree angle to the rest of your body, ideally on the armrests, and your knees should be at hip level or slightly above or below. You feet should be flat on the floor or on a footrest, with your thighs parallel to the floor.

Is your chair the right height and its seat the right width? The space between the seat’s front edge and the backs of your knees should be two-three fingers wide. When you stand, the front edge of the seat should be two inches below your knees.

Ideally the seat should be padded, curved or have a waterfall front edge. The backrest should provide lumbar support and be adjustable for height and tilt, while the armrests preferably should be padded and adjustable.

Your chair, monitor, keyboard and mouse all should be aligned in front of you. The keyboard tray should tilt horizontally and vertically so you can find the most comfortable position. It should have a padded wrist rest and attached mouse tray slightly higher than the keyboard level.

Schultz recommended placing the keyboard close to your body so your wrists are straight. With a mouse tray or without, he also recommended mouse movements that are close to the keyboard, using your elbows and shoulders, not just your wrist. The smaller the muscle group being used, the more prone to injury, he noted.

To adjust your monitor properly, the top of the screen should be at eye level, with the screen at arm’s length. Ideally, your screen is at a 90-degree angle to any windows; you may want to tilt it to reduce any glare.

People find creative solutions to such issues, Schultz reported. He showed photos of the University Library System’s Thomas Boulevard facility, which has so much sunlight coming into the office through large uncovered windows that staffers held a contest to construct the best looking sun screens for their computer monitors.

The results were colorful shades that sometimes resembled the tops of beach chairs. “It looked like a Jimmy Buffett concert,” but it worked, he said.

Any person with bifocals tends to tilt his head back to see the screen with the right part of the lens. Instead, Schultz recommended the purchase of computer glasses, which place your focal point at 36 inches — closer than the normal focal distance.

Contact stress is one of the biggest ergonomic issues for those who work at desks. “The worst thing you can do is rest your wrist on the edge of the desk,” he said, since that means your nerves will be pressing on a hard surface.

People need to learn better ways to turn in their swiveling, rolling chairs, he added: “A lot of people just twist around. Chair movements at the wrong time in the wrong way with the wrong force — you end up with back injuries.” He suggested pivoting both legs and head in the direction you are moving.

On the phone a lot?  Don’t hold the receiver in the crook of your neck. Use a headset and avoid resting your elbow on the hard desk surface.

Working from a document? You’ll want it right in front of you, close to the monitor, not flat on the desk or off to the side, in order to reduce repetitive movements of your head.

Have your office lighted “like you’re working on the sun?” Schultz asked. “You don’t need all that light. It does cause migraines and headaches.” You can ask maintenance to remove bulbs and use task lights.

Some people now are using work stations at standing height, or that can move from sitting to standing. “In my opinion you really don’t want to stand all day,” he cautioned. But he stands ten minutes out of every two hours, making certain he has a shock-absorbing foot mat or a foot stool to raise a foot while standing, reducing strain on his lower back.

Managing stress is a big factor in ameliorating pain and injury. “Every 20 minutes you should take a 30-second break,” he said. “Stand up. Move your muscles. Vary your tasks so you don’t do the same movements all the time.”

Schultz’s department website ( has exercises for all body parts, including the eyes, and more detailed guides for adjusting your work station ergonomically, he noted.

It can take about two weeks for you to adjust to any changes, Schultz noted, even ones that benefit your work ergonomically. But staff members from his department will come to your office to assess your workspace and make adjustments, if requested.

“If you have problems, get help early,” he said. “Ergonomics is not an exact science and there is not one way that fits everybody.”

—Marty Levine

Filed under: Feature,Volume 47 Issue 4