Incorporate Ergonomics into Initial Design

moveable arm
Movable monitor arms increase desktop surface space, helping people avoid problematic positions that could lead to injury.

BUILDING DIALOGUE

When designing a new client workspace, design teams give even the smallest details – from furniture stitching to drawer pulls – thoughtful consideration. However, one important aspect of office design is often overlooked to the detriment of both the client and employee: ergonomics.

christopher leach

Christopher K.M. Leach
President and Owner, Contract Furnishings

Ergonomics is the science of designing the workspace to fit the worker, not the other way around. When ergonomics is overlooked, employees can develop musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) like carpal tunnel or lower back injuries, resulting in decreased productivity and potential workplace injury claims. In fact, work-related MSDs are among the most frequently reported causes of lost or restricted work time.

By proactively designing to accommodate workers’ ergonomic needs upfront, clients can avoid having to retrofit workstations, which often offers a quick fix rather than a complete solution, and can take away from the overall workplace aesthetic.

The Three S’s of Workplace Ergonomics 

Most office ergonomic design involves the three S’s: seat, surface and screen. Often, small but impactful adjustments to a seat and/or screen are enough to solve a problem. For example, employers can encourage active instead of passive sitting by choosing adjustable chairs that allow people to move and change positions to fit their bodies. Attaching movable arms to monitors also provides flexibility, helping avoid problematic positions and increasing the overall work surface by getting the monitors off of the desk.

adjustable chair

Flexible, adjustable chairs allow people to change positions to fit their body’s needs and comfort level.

When seat and screen adjustments aren’t enough, and issues persist, the surface is often the culprit. Many times, fixed-height work surfaces are too high, resulting in hunched/shrugged shoulders or overextended arms. Such improper posture is three times more likely to increase workplace injury. Getting individuals to an ergonomically neutral position may require an item like a footrest to compensate for surface height.

When compared to fixed-height, seated desks, standing desks are a major improvement, but they come with their own issues: the problems we used to see involved wrists, elbows, neck and shoulders. Standing desks have created a new set of injuries to the feet, ankles, shins and knees.

Since our bodies are not meant to sit or stand for eight hours a day, there is a best-of-both-worlds option: the sit-stand adjustable-height desk. A recent study found that employees with sit-to-stand desks reported greater productivity and improved health inside and outside the office. With prices decreasing considerably, sit-to-stand is an affordable solution. We almost always incorporate them into our designs from the beginning because adjustable surfaces make it easier to adjust seats and screens properly.

In addition to ergonomic furniture and products, designing a space to encourage as much movement as possible will pay off. Putting space between the workstations and the printer, for example, gives employees an opportunity to walk and loosen stiff muscles before returning to a sitting or standing position. The bottom line is movement. Our bodies need to move at least eight to 10 minutes every hour.

An Ounce of Prevention 

Investing in a proper ergonomics assessment in the initial design phase is smart business. With input from ergonomics experts, design teams can choose the best products and configurations to ensure worker safety and comfort.

Speaking directly to employees also helps inform the decision-making process. Seeking individual feedback not only guarantees higher employee morale as your client begins planning their space, it helps ensure staff are set up for success. An ergonomics assessment can identify discomfort indicators that employees didn’t realize could lead to harm. Since people develop work habits over many years, they are often too close to the situation to recognize the problem.

Advising clients to consider ergonomics when creating a new work environment will pay off in the long run, resulting in a healthier and happier staff. And, that boosted morale adds another dimension to the look, feel and flow you and your client are trying to achieve.

Published in the September 2018 issue of Building Dialogue.

Edited by Building Dialogue