Getting to the root of proper body mechanics

CIO (6/17/2002)

Brion's comments:
'As someone who spends way too much time at a desk, working on a computer, I know simple adjustments to posture can have a huge overall impact on health.'

Feature article:

Ergonomics. To the uninitiated, the term sounds more like the latest in retro-sports car transmissions coming out of Detroit, or the college statistics class you avoided at all costs. For savvy executives, it is an essential component of a healthy working environment.

In short, ergonomics is the science of body mechanics. When a job's physical demands and a worker's physical capacity are at odds, musculoskeletal disorders can follow. Here, the transmission analogy works. If any of the parts fail, the whole machine grinds to a halt. There are few ailments more insidious, and potentially debilitating, than those created and perpetuated by improper body mechanics. Stiff neck, sore shoulder, tight back, hip pain, numbness, tingling, swelling, loss of function, loss of strength, and fatigue. According to the US Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), musculoskeletal disorders are the culprits in more than a third of all occupational injuries resulting in lost work days, with more than 600,000 employees ailing each year. These injuries cost businesses an estimated $15-$20 billion in workers' compensation each year, and total direct costs may run as high as $45-$60 billion, says OSHA.

No business is immune. Once the domain of the heavy-lifting warehouse crew, ergonomics are playing an increasing role the office environment. Desktops, especially those crowded with computer monitor, keyboard and a mouse amid all the paperwork, are especially ripe breeding grounds for repetitive strain injuries. And while a litany of trade publication articles have detailed the dangers of poor ergonomics, they often are overlooked by harried executives.

"We sit at our computers, we smile, take a sip of coffee, and think, 'This article doesn't apply to me.' Wrong," says Sherry Fenton Turner, MS, OTR/L, president of the Massachusetts Association for Occupational Therapy and owner of Occupational Therapy Resource Group, Inc. "Many computers users suffer from eye strain, upper and lower back pain, poor lower extremity circulation and common upper extremity ailments."

There are numerous safety measures companies can implement to encourage better ergonomics, but the best method of prevention might be staring at you in the mirror. "Employee controls are the work practices and approaches you adopt to ensure your own health," says Fenton Turner. "No one is in a position to care for you better than yourself."

To that end, here's a brief primer on the art of self- assessment for the desk-bound executive:

Body position

* Head directly over shoulders, rather than leaning forward

* Shoulders neutral and relaxed

* Elbows angled at 90 degrees

* Wrist angle between neutral and 20 degrees

* Hip angle, 90 degrees

* Knees parallel to hips, or slightly lower

* Back of knees extended one to two inches away from sitting surface

* Feet flat on supportive surface

Display Terminal

* Top of monitor at eye level (adjust sight lines for bifocals/trifocals)

* Document holder same distance as monitor screen

* Monitor directly in front of user, roughly 18 inches away

* Keyboard at height to allow proper elbow/wrist position

* Use a wrist rest to reduce localized pressure

* Chair armrests adjustable/flexible to allow proper forearm angle

* Chair back flexible to allow periodic extension

* Chair with five legs on swivel wheels

* Alternate light source to reduce glare/reflection

* Headset for hands-free conversation

* Multi-option mouse (preferably cordless) for varied hand movements

Work Practices

* Alternate computing tasks with non-stationary tasks

* Close eyes often to relieve dryness and strain

* Take water breaks

* Stand, walk, relax

* Regularly stretch all major muscle groups

* Avoid reaching while seated to retrieve items

* Adopt a healthy lifestyle (diet, exercise and rest)

Though the last item might seem obvious to a fault, Fenton Turner says its routinely neglected. Keep in mind, this list is a very basic blueprint. Lack of proper ergonomics can lead to a host of complicated medical issues, including Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, De Quervain's Disease, Epicondylitis, Ganglion Cysts, Tendonitis, Tenosynovitis, Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, Trigger Finger, and Ulnar Nerve Entrapment. All can be debilitating, which, ultimately, will effect your company's bottom line. For more details, contact the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health at 1-800-35-NIOSH or visit the OSHA web site at

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