Designing a functional and efficient ergonomically designed office isn’t always easy. Among other things, you’ll have to create a layout for all workstations, ensure the workstations can fit in the desired area, consider accessibility to power outlets, acoustics, lighting and more.
Because it’s such a laborious and time-consuming task, many business owners and managers overlook ergonomics when designing an office. And in doing so, their completed office lacks a fundamental element of a successful office design. Whether you’re designing an office from scratch or redesigning an existing layout, you should follow the recipe below for an ergonomic workplace.
What is Ergonomics?
er·go·nom·ics – the study of people’s efficiency in their working environment.
While most people have at least heard of ergonomics, few know or understand its true meaning. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) – the federal organization that regulates workplace safety in the United States – ergonomics is the “science of designing the job to fit the worker.” Basically, it’s the process and methodology of designing a workplace to meet the needs of the worker.
The International Ergonomics Association (IEA) specifically lists three different types of ergonomics:
- Physical Ergonomics: this involves physiological processes that can affect a worker physically, such as the implementation of lifting machines, office chairs with lumbar support and desks installed at the proper height.
- Cognitive Ergonomics: as the name suggests, cognitive ergonomics involves psychological factors, such as memory retention and perception of one’s surrounding environment.
- Organizational Ergonomics: this involves company rules and policies as well as employer-to-worker communication.
The term “ergonomics” was first coined by British scientist and author K.F.H. Murrell in the late 1940s. Murrell joined together the Greek words “ergon” and “nomos,” which mean “wok and “law” respectively. In 1949, Murrell also formed a small group of workers for research involving human factors. This group would later become the Ergonomics Research Society. While the term “ergonomics” was initially used in the U.K., it quickly spread to other countries, including the United States.
Does Ergonomics Really Matter?
The short answer is yes, ergonomics does matter. When employers turn a blind eye to ergonomics, it creates numerous problems that interfere with their normal business operations and ultimately costs them money.
Protects Against Injury
Poor ergonomics is a leading risk factor of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), some of which include carpal tunnel syndrome, epicondylitis, tendinitis, vertebrae disc herniation, torn ligaments, muscle sprains, nerve damage and more. MSDs are injuries that affect the body’s movement and/or its musculoskeletal system.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), MSDs are responsible for nearly one-third of all work-related injuries and illnesses, further attesting to the importance of an ergonomic workplace.
When workers sustain MSDs due to poor ergonomics, it places a significant financial burden on the employer. Injured workers, for instance, are often required to seek medical attention and take time off from work, all of which costs the employer.
While the exact cost of MSDs remains unknown, statistics estimate that direct costs of MSDs are about $20 billion a year, while the total costs – both direct and indirect – is around $45 billion to $55 billion. The same OSHA article mentioned earlier even suggests that $1 of every $3 spent on worker’s compensation goes towards treating MSDs. The bottom line is that failure to create an ergonomic office will end up costing you big bucks in the long run. Therefore, you have to think of ergonomics as an investment. It may cost some initial money to create an ergonomic office, but it will reduce worker’s compensation and other associated expenses.
Ergonomics can also affect the productivity of workers. According to a study cited by Canada’s Institute for Work and Health (IWH), tax workers who were given an ergonomic adjustable chair and training on ergonomics experienced an 18% increase in productivity. While this study was small, involving just 200 workers, it was one of the first studies linking an ergonomic workplace to increased productivity.
So, how does ergonomics improve the productivity of workers? Well, given the fact that office workers often sit for up to eight hours a day, a poorly designed chair can promote fatigue. Workers who sit in uncomfortable chairs become tired sooner in the day, which subsequently lowers their productivity. An ergonomic workplace, on the other hand, reduces fatigue and increases productivity.
An ergonomic office also promotes greater productivity by simplifying certain tasks, such as walking to and from the fax machine. If the office is poorly designed, workers may be forced to take unnecessarily long routes to use the fax machine. If it’s properly designed with ergonomics in mind, however, workers can easily access the fax machine or other equipment without wasting time or energy. These are just a few of the ways in which ergonomics can increase productivity in the workplace.
Improves Worker Satisfaction
Finally, an ergonomically designed office can improve worker satisfaction. Forcing workers to use outdated, poorly designed equipment doesn’t exactly send a positive message. Some workers may feel neglected by their employers, resulting in them seeking a job elsewhere.
This is important because according to a survey conducted by the Conference Board, 52.3% of Americans are unhappy with their current job. And when employees are unhappy, they may either search for a different job or become less productive at their current job. If you’re able to create an ergonomic office, however, you’ll create more satisfied workers while avoiding problems such as these.
How to Create an Ergonomic Office
Now that you know a little bit about the importance of ergonomics, you might be wondering how to implement it in your office. Creating an ergonomic office requires a multi-pronged approach, including the following elements.
Follow Ergonomic Standards for Desks
Each desk in your office should be designed and installed according to generally accepted ergonomics standards. Simply tossing up desks with no regard to the worker will only hurt your efforts to achieve an ergonomic workplace. Here are some ergonomic standards to follow when setting up desks in your office:
- The height of the keyboard tray should be the same height as the worker’s elbows.
- The keyboard tray should feature an area for the mouse and mouse pad to the right.
- Padding should be placed in front of a keyboard tray to support the worker’s wrists.
- The top of the computer should be parallel to the worker’s eyes when he or she is seated.
- The computer monitor or document holder should be placed directly in front of the worker.
- The computer monitor should have a 10 to 20-degree tilt.
- Distance between the worker and computer monitor should be roughly 20 to 28 inches.
- Computer Desks should be installed on a flat, even surface.
- Workers should plant both feet directly on the floor, keeping them about shoulder-width apart.
- Most importantly, choose a high-quality, well-made desk. Cheap office desks made of particle board or other low-grade materials lack the support and ergonomic features of their higher quality counterparts.
Strategically Place Furniture and Commonly Used Items
When choosing a location for furniture and commonly used items in your office, consider how it will affect workers. Placing a short file cabinet on the floor, for instance, forces workers to bend over to access it. An alternative solution that promotes greater ergonomics is to place the file cabinet atop a small desk or table, allowing workers to access it while standing.
Placing extra printer paper in a storage cabinet on the ground is another element of a poor office design. Because printer paper is accessed frequently by workers, it should be placed in a natural, easy-to-reach location, such as adjacent to the printer. The general idea is to prevent workers from bending down or making other stress-inducing movements when possible.
Keep Walkways Clear
Walkways and “traffic paths” in your office should be kept clear. While placing some boxes down in a hallway may seem harmless enough, it can negatively affect the office’s ergonomics. Workers will be forced to walk around those boxes, adding to fatigue and stress.
To prevent this from happening, designate specific areas for storage – and only store items in those areas. Walkways, hallways and other traffic paths should remain clear at all times.
Provide Workers with Ergonomic Office Chairs
The right chairs are also a critical component of an ergonomic office. You have to remember that workers spend a substantial amount of time sitting. In fact, an article published by Times indicates that office workers spend up to 75% of their waking hours sitting. Therefore, employers and managers must provide their workers with ergonomic chairs.
When choosing chairs for your office, make sure it has an adjustable height. Being that no two workers are exactly the same height, they’ll need to adjust the chair at their desk for proper ergonomics. Additionally, check the seat cushion when choosing office chairs. An ergonomically designed chair should feature a soft, comfortable cushion to minimize stress on the pelvis, as well as the armrests at a 90-degree angle.
An ergonomic office chair should also feature strong support for the lower back. Statistics show that 31 million Americans suffer from lower back pain at any given time. It’s so common, in fact, that 80% of the general population will experience it at some point in their life. While back pain can be caused by any number of things, sitting in a poorly designed chair for long periods of time is a common risk factor, which is why it’s important to choose office chairs with proper support for the lower back.
When you think of office ergonomics, lighting probably doesn’t come to mind. Nonetheless, the type of lighting and its location can affect ergonomics in the workplace.
Some employers assume that brighter is better when it comes to lights. After all, bright lights provide greater illumination, allowing workers to see what they are doing. However, lights that are too bright may interfere with workers’ ability to see. It can create blinding glares and reflections, all while preventing workers from completing their regular tasks.
Conversely, dim lighting forces strain workers’ eyes, which can cause headaches, fatigue and low productivity. If the lighting is too dim, workers may strain to see what they are doing. Therefore, you need to use balanced lighting that falls somewhere in the middle.
Here are some lighting tips to create an ergonomic office:
- Install lighting over workstations.
- Consider using task lighting to reduce eye strain and improve ergonomics.
- Choose yellow instead of white lights.
- Use a smart lighting system to automatically adjust brightness levels depending on the time of day.
- Embrace natural lighting by setting up workstations around windows (but position them away from the window to avoid sun glare on monitors).
- Install glare filters on computer monitors.
Train Workers on Safe Lifting Practices
A form of organizational ergonomics is training workers on safe lifting practices. Have you ever pulled a muscle while lifting a heavy object? Well, this is a common type of injury that millions of people suffer from. The good news is that it’s completely avoidable by following some safe lifting practices.
Workers should be trained to lift boxes and other objects with their feet, not their backs. Rather than bending their back to grab and lift a box, for instance, the worker should bend his or her legs until their knees are about parallel to the floor, at which point he or she can grab and lift the box. This way, the weight of the box (or object) is placed on the worker’s legs instead of his or her back.
Encourage Workers to Take Breaks
Finally, you should encourage workers to take breaks. Contrary to what some employers believe, this won’t have a negative effect on productivity levels; it does the opposite by promoting higher productivity levels. When workers are allowed (and encouraged) to take breaks, they’ll be able to walk around and refresh their mental clarity.
Following this recipe will help you achieve an ergonomically designed office. Remember, though, ergonomics is an ongoing process that requires constant observation and adaption. As long as you remain vigilant and continue to optimize your office for human function, you’ll create an ergonomic workplace.
President at Office Chairs Unlimited – I have been in the furniture industry for over 20 years, and I’m an expert (just ask me) on all things furniture. I know a thing or two because I’ve seen a thing or two.