How to optimize office ergonomics

As many businesses make plans for employees to return to the workplace, now is the perfect time to hit the refresh button and take a look at how to optimize office ergonomics

How to optimize office ergonomics
“I think there’s pieces of the office environment that pertain to ergonomics that are going to be introduced as a result of COVID-19 that are associated with risks.”

Not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind when you think of workplace hazards, ergonomics is steadily becoming a more widespread concern for offices around the country.

While more physically demanding jobs in construction or manufacturing come with their own set of ergonomic concerns, traditional office spaces can be dangerous if ergonomic concerns are not addressed. Repetitive strain injury (RSI) is serious enough to limit normal activities, reports Workplace Safety North (WSN). Indeed, one in every 10 Canadian adults suffers from RSI. Approximately 2.3 million Canadians aged 20 and over (around 10 per cent of the population) have reported having an RSI the previous year, according to a Statistics Canada study conducted in 2003. And the numbers are growing every year.

It is important to highlight that even workers in sedentary jobs can develop work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSDs) over time. For office workers, this can manifest as carpal tunnel syndrome, thoracic outlet syndrome or even tension neck syndrome. Office workers can develop issues with their hands, wrists, elbows, neck, shoulders and even back pain.

This year, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, most office workplaces have been disrupted and many office workers have been working from home. With many businesses now making plans to gradually re-open workplaces, it is a great time to re-evaluate ergonomics best practices in the office, best practices working from home and whether new workplace guidelines will affect current ergonomics guidelines.

Getting educated
Dr. Judy Village, certified professional ergonomist (human factors consultant) and president of the Association of Canadian Ergonomists, says that “all workplaces need to provide education and awareness of MSDs and how they occur and how best to set up workspaces and equipment.” This is one of the most important things workplaces can do and a good place to start regarding good ergonomic practices.

Indeed, before anything, Village says, first and foremost, people need to be educated and aware about early signs and symptoms of MSDs and how to set themselves up properly to avoid these. She says that everyone’s physical size, office space and tasks are different, so “you’ve got to understand your own job and job demands to find the right fit.”

How are ergonomics guidelines enforced in the workplace? Is it something for which workplace inspectors look? Village says that it really depends on the jurisdiction. Certainly, in Canada this can vary from province to province. For example, in British Coumbia, inspectors should be looking at ergonomic practices very carefully under the ergonomics regulations. There are also federal ergonomics requirements for federal employees.

Having the right equipment
So, what is the second step after getting educated?

“The second [step] would be to make sure that you have the right equipment and accessories to make sure that you can achieve optimal postures. People need to know what optimal postures look like,” says Village.

For example, if you’re working with a laptop, you may want to have a spare keyboard or monitor so that you can get at the right height for both the arms/wrists and the neck, she says.

How important is it to have specific equipment and what kind of budget should companies devote to ergonomics tools? “It’s a hard question,” says Village. “It depends on the workplace and a worker’s fit. A lot of companies will provide a standardized workstation and standardized accessories. For this to accommodate the majority of workers, the key is to make sure that they’re adjustable. “For a small percentage who don’t have a good fit with standardized equipment, they may require something more.”

For example, if you’ve got someone with wrist problems, they may benefit from a specific mouse. It really depends on the worker and their interaction with the equipment and the tasks they perform, says Village.

Nick Gargiulo, product manager at Cority Enviance and a health, safety, and ergonomics expert, says that standing desks can be a great piece of any ergonomic recommended equipment, but it’s really up to the business to define what it can and is willing to offer. Other pieces of equipment that are available to people are external devices such as keyboards, mice, monitors, etc. As much as getting the right equipment, finding the right postures to avoid MSDs is as important for optimal ergonomic practices.

“[Another step] would be to encourage movement — we’re too static, sedentary. We need to break up our tasks and encourage movement, change postures frequently.” This could, for example, be doing a telephone conversation standing up rather than sitting down, says Village.

“Change your postures, change your tasks. What causes these injuries is being in one posture and doing it too long,” she says.

For workers who do all of these things and still have injuries and concerns, they need to get somebody to do an ergonomic assessment. The Association of Canadian Ergonomists (ACE) has a consultants’ directory where workers and employers can find someone to do an assessment of the tasks, work station setup, postures and the equipment that might be causing concern.

Village says the association is an important starting place because ergonomists aren’t licensed by schools the way physiotherapists and occupational therapists are. They have an independent board called the Canadian College for the Certification of Professional Ergonomists (CCCPE). The certification board was established to make sure that ergonomists have the necessary academic training combined with ergonomics work experience. Hiring a certified ergonomist ensures you have someone qualified to assess your work station.

Working from home
The traditional workplace has been disrupted over the last few months due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. This public health crisis has forced many office workers to work remotely. Although there is talk of easing restrictions over the next few months, many workers are still working from home and will no doubt continue to work from home — partly out of necessity and partly because this pandemic has led to a fundamental shift in how we consider our relationship to the workplace. Working from home and doing online meetings may even result in more screen time, making the risk of MSDs even greater, says Village.

She says there’s no real difference between ergonomics best practices in the office space and at home. One needs the best postures possible and “be aware of early signs and symptoms [of MSDs], says Village. If you start to get an ache in the neck or in the wrist, could there be something [you’re] doing in [your] setup at home? Troubleshooting can be done to prevent that posture, that pain and ache from happening.”

She says it is very important to be conscious of these early signs and symptoms. Similar to an office environment, you should do a lot of movements in your day and vary your tasks. Again, if you have an issue that is more serious, then you need to get an ergonomic assessment by a certified ergonomist. With physical distancing ergonomists can still do remote assessments, assures Village.

Some companies are helping their employees set up a working home office. For example, in May, tech giant Twitter said that “all employees, including hourly workers, will receive reimbursement toward their home office setup expenses, and we are working with our vendors to ensure our contractors' work-from-home needs are met as well. We listened to employee feedback and expanded our policy to include home office equipment, such as desks, desk chairs and ergonomic chair cushions.”

This may be a step forward and an example for other companies looking to transition into working from home in the long term.

This ties into one of the big concerns with working from home currently, which is that, due to the quick onset of the virus, employees started working from home out of necessity, rather than choice. “There’s definitely a difference between the rapid movement to working from home as opposed to a more measured approach,” says Gargiulo.

The biggest challenge, he says, is that with the rapidity of the move, there was not time to establish proper processes and guidelines. Furthermore, workers may not have access to things such as standardized equipment or other equipment that could help with working from home. And these things are difficult to answer on the fly. Many workers may not even still have this equipment available to them. Gargiulo says another big challenge is the lack of control of what is available to employees in their home environment because there wasn’t the opportunity for planning or budgeting and not all home workers have dedicated spaces.

Returning to work
For those businesses bringing their employees back to the office, they are looking into how they can physically distance from customers or clients (or from other employees), but it is important to “make sure that when you’re making these accommodations, you’re not putting the worker more at risk,” says Village. “It’s important to also consider whether that modification is going to increase the risk of musculoskeletal disorders.”

Adds Gargiulo, “I think there’s pieces of the office environment that pertain to ergonomics that are going to be introduced as a result of COVID-19 that are associated with risks.” For example, he says, if you install partitions for socially distanced delivery, acceptance and receipt of goods, what postures does that introduce? “Those are important things that we have to think about.”

What are other things that people should be aware about returning to work? “Body position is probably the most important,” says Gargiulo. “As people get back to the office, they’ve obviously developed new and different habits. Even if it’s a familiar place, it’s going to be different.”

Working from home may have also led some workers to change certain behaviours, such as taking breaks, he says. “Working from home adds a totally different dynamic to how your workday is structured.” Indeed, workers at home may not be taking breaks frequently enough or moving around enough during the day.

This is why working in an office can lead to better ergonomic practices. “In the office setting, you have more often than not more opportunity to take breaks built into your day and equipment such as standing desks may be available. The real benefit to either environment is focusing on achieving proper postures and finding opportunity to frequently change your position,” says Gargiulo.

Another important thing when going back into an office setting, he says, is early reporting of discomfort when getting re-acclimated to the office environment. “Speaking up early is really an important part for any office ergonomics program,” says Gargiulo.

Planning for the future
“I think we’re going to see a bit of a transition, with more people working from home,” says Gargiulo.  Tech could be an answer to managing employees working remotely. “What software does is give you the capability to reach your employees wherever they might be. [Tech] provides assessment and training to the individual, and ultimately what that can do is really help them understand… and ultimately update their resources,” he says.

Gargiulo says tech can provide empowerment to the employee to solve their own problems and whittles down the group of people on which to focus. You can then prioritize your resources. One of the big challenges with people working from home is that you are not able to see workers in person. Tech may be a great solution for management, and it could also maybe help keep track of employees’ ergonomic concerns from a distance.

“As we start to look into the permanency of working from home for some people — even on a part-time basis — the biggest thing that will have to be addressed is adapting [ergonomic] plans to account for people in the home environment, so that they’ll still be as comfortable as people working in the office,” says Gargiulo.

Indeed, with the shift in how we perceive our jobs and our workplaces, many employees may now prefer to work from home permanently or at least a couple of days a week. Workplaces will have to adapt to make sure they are covering all the bases and all ergonomic concerns.

Gargiulo says it is also important that work office programs start covering working from home more robustly. There is a need to get those parts of the program developed and established, so that they can be established and successful. There needs to be more holistic training to cover both aspects of that environment.


This article originally appeared in the July/August 2020 issue of COS.