While planning for a business trip I found myself browsing a popular hotel chain website to see all of the amenities offered for the room I had reserved. Nothing can make someone miss home more than an uncomfortable hotel room in an unfamiliar city. The description seemed to have the normal options: a comfortable bed, television and chair. As I continued on, my eyes opened wide as I read, “This room offers the latest in technology and ergonomic comfort to our guests.” Not only could I expect to have the comforts of home, I would also be able to rest easy knowing that my ergonomic needs would be met. My disappointment came when I realised the only item they were using to establish “ergonomic comfort” was the presence of a Herman Miller chair, a popular designer of office furniture.
This experience demonstrates two important points. First, the term ergonomic has become a trendy and familiar part of the average vocabulary. Second, the perception of ergonomic solutions has developed in to something that can be satisfied by the latest gadget, piece of equipment or furniture design.
Before you log on to eBay to purchase an Aeron chair, the black mess chair that has become an office status symbol, you should ask yourself a question: “What’s in it for me? Is ergonomics just another trend, or is there a value that goes far beyond flashy chairs and gadgets?”
To answer this question, lets start with the basics – What is ergonomics? Rather than bore you with textbook terminology, put simply, the primary purpose of ergonomics is to reduce stress on the body that can result from your activities or your environment.
The rapid growth of ergonomic awareness has been fuelled by medical and clinical professionals who are motivated to prevent musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), such as carpel tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, ruptured spinal discs, neck injuries, ligament sprains and trigger finger. MSDs are disorders that affect muscles, bones, connective tissues and nerves. Common MSDs affect the neck, back, shoulders, arms, wrists, hands, knees, ankles and feet. Take another look at this list If you have ever experienced pain and discomfort in one or more of these body parts, or if you realise how your lifestyle would be extremely limited if you were to develop an MSD, the rest of this article is for you.
The good news is that ergonomic interventions can treat or prevent MSDs. To prevent MSDs, we have to understand how these disorders develop. Typically MSDs result from two types of trauma: acute and cumulative trauma. Acute trauma refers to sudden tissue damage that exceeds the capacity of the body’s tolerance. For example, acute trauma can occur when a person lifts an excessively heavy object using poor body mechanics. The capacity for the body to withstand tissue damage decreases with age and declining physical fitness.
Alternatively, cumulative trauma involves a more gradual process that can result in discomfort, pain and injury. Damage occurs gradually from repetitive or sustained activities as a result of interrupted blood flow, bone and joint stress and muscle fatigue. This process initially involves small amounts of tissue damage or ‘micro trauma’ and is typically without symptoms. As this process continues, larger amounts of tissue damage or ‘macro trauma’ finally result in consequential symptoms and disability.
The widespread occurrence of MSDs in the UK has cost employers and the NHS millions of pounds. More importantly, the individuals suffering from MSDs have suffered through months or even years of pain and discomfort, creating for some individuals the inability to return to the care-free lifestyle they once enjoyed.
Still interested? Let’s discuss what you need to know about ergonomics that will allow you to identify potential risk factors and to prevent discomfort, pain and injury.
First we need to dispel some of the common misconceptions that are often associated with ergonomics. Numerous medical studies have implicated poor environmental design an at-risk behaviours as contributors to the development of the vast majority of MSDs. Much of the efforts to combat these contributors have focused on environmental design. From engineers to university researchers, thousands of individuals and groups have worked to decrease the risk of injury at your work and home using high-tech inventions and gadgets. With all of this research and intelligence on the case, how can individuals still be suffering from these debilitating disorders? Read on.
As I stated, research shows that at-risk behaviours are just as important as environmental design to prevent MSDs. It is that easy, just change your behaviour! OK, so maybe it’s not that easy. That is why there is so much effort and focus on environmental design and equipment. If we can make people more like robots and less like human beings the problem will be solved. Unfortunately, as long as there is human interaction with activities and the environment, behaviour will always present a potential risk factor.
The reason I have elaborated on this point is to ensure that you do not rely on equipment, such as the newest fancy office chair, as the only intervention necessary to prevent the development of MSDs. While equipment, gadgets or furniture can be extremely valuable, a successful solution must involve an integrated approach. Here are some simple solutions that you can apply at work and at home to maintain your healthy lifestyle and to prevent MSDs.
To start, and this may be surprising, take a look at your fitness routine and nutritional habits. The surgeon general recently reported 60% of adults are overweight and physically unfit. These lifestyle factors, combined with aging, are the most important contributors to MSDs, though they are rarely mentioned in the discussion of MSD prevention. It is easy to say that you should exercise more and eat less, the challenge is maintaining that motivation.
Start small. As a coach I once had used to say, “Inch by inch everything is a cinch; yard by yard everything is hard.” Think about simple steps you can start with to help your body recover from the stress it experiences due to your environment and activities. Don’t skip breakfast, get adequate sleep (between 7-8 Hours), use the stairs rather than the lift. Where you start is not important, it is the ability to maintain and progress your efforts that will make a difference.
Once you have examined your lifestyle habits, take a look at your work and home life. As technology continues to improve, and society becomes more dependent on an electronic lifestyle, it is easy to find your self exposed to extended hours of seated activities, using computers and staring at visual displays. Unfortunately, humans are designed for movement and respond poorly to these prolonged static postures. Muscles need to dynamically contract and relax on a periodic basis to remain strong. If a personal exercise is lacking, sedentary work leads to muscle deconditioning. In addition, dynamic muscle activity (periodic contracting and relaxing of muscle tissues) is essential for proper blood flow, nourishment and oxygenation of tissues.
Take a look at your daily schedule. If you are exposed to sedentary and static postures, create a routine of periodic movement and stretch breaks.
The information in this article should help you determine certain risk factors and matching solutions that can be used to reduce and prevent the symptoms of MSDs. However it is important to follow the golden rule of ergonomics – one size does not fit all. Specific solutions for your activities and environment are crucial in preventing pain and injury and in maintaining an active lifestyle.
For further ergonomics help and advice contact Cardinus Consultancy on 0207 469 0200 or email [email protected].