Guest Post Written By: Vanessa del Aguila, AEP, Project Manager at Workwell Partners
When you think of the word “ergonomics,” what comes to mind? Chairs, health, spine, injury, computer, comfort?—all common responses. To put it simply, ergonomics is the study of fitting the work to the body. The goal is to improve comfort, efficiency, and minimize the risk of injury. Over the course of my career as an ergonomist, I have had to take the time to dispel many common misconceptions regarding ergonomics. Here are a few:
Sitting up straight is the best posture
Have you ever been told to “sit up straight” by your mother or grandmother? Sure, sitting up straight makes you look more poised than slouching, but maintaining an upright position can and has been linked to lower back discomfort. Gravity naturally pulls your body weight down, subsequently causing the vertebrae to compress the discs in the spine. Sitting up straight is actually exhausting over time! You are forcing your body to hold itself up until your muscles start to fatigue. What is likely to happen next is slouching or forward leaning, which disrupts the natural curvature of the spine. The best way to maintain spinal health is to recline back in your chair, offsetting your body weight from your spine to the back of the chair.
New chairs solve all ergonomic problems
“My back hurts! I’ll just get a new chair.” You could get a new chair at your desk, but what will improve all musculoskeletal discomfort? Often times, lower back discomfort stems from your posture and how you interact with your computer and tasks. Certainly an ergonomic task chair that meets the basic standards—height adjustable, adjustable seat pan, adjustable lumbar support/back rest, recline tension adjustment, and adjustable armrests—can help improve back comfort. However, it is our tendency to follow our hands—to reach for your keyboard and mouse—and eyes—to be able to view our computer monitors—that can cause discomfort. Try bringing the work to you. Pull the monitor, keyboard, mouse, and other tools you use frequently closer to you. You will notice this will allow you to sit back in your chair and maintain a more relaxed, neutral posture.
Adjustability is synonymous with the word ergonomic
Many people believe that “adjustability” and “ergonomic” are terms that can be used interchangeably. While most ergonomic products should have a degree of adjustability, those adjustable features should not be able to harm the user. For example, keyboard trays are designed to bring the keyboard and mouse closer to the body, lower them to relax the shoulders, as well as tilt away from the body to straighten the wrists. Bending the wrists upwards can increase intracarpal tunnel pressure. The tendons attached to the fingers used for typing run through the carpal tunnel, which is the size of a dime or nickel. Angling the keyboard upwards has been linked to nerve compression and tendon fatigue. There are keyboard trays out on the market that actually allow for that positive tilt. This is a feature that could put your wrist in an awkward, extreme posture. Remember to keep the wrists straight, or ideally, angled away from the body.
Products labeled as “ergonomic” are always ergonomic
I have come across many products that claim to have true ergonomic benefits, from types of foods to even bras! One common product that you can find in any office catalog is the wrist rest. This is the mouse pad with the gel or foam bump where the users rest the underside of their wrist on. The only line of defense for the carpal tunnel region is a thin ligament. Studies have shown that wrist rests can double the pressure in the carpal tunnel. Also, users tend to plant the wrist on that bump and pivot from side to side, which is a very repetitive motion. Be wary of the term “ergonomic” as it can be used as a marketing tool. Make sure you understand the research and science behind each product you consider purchasing.