Nigel Heaton and Guy Osmond believe society faces an ergonomics challenge that has the potential to overwhelm. Here they explain that we need to act now to prepare to meet a tidal wave of musculoskeletal issues that threaten to engulf the current and future generations of workers.

The problem is technology and how younger workers today are using it. Everybody is more exposed to technology than ever before and we interact with it in a variety of ways from games consoles to smartphones, via laptops and tablets. The use of smartphones and tablets is widespread and the level of technology interaction both within and outside the workplace is greater than ever before.

We are immersed in our digital experiences on public transport, in our bedrooms, in classrooms and in the evenings while also watching TV. Young people give no thought to the potential impact of such prolonged use of technology nor the situations and postures in which they use it.

Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are caused by a combination of the presence of hazards and exposure to those hazards. For young people this can be a bad combination. They have sub-optimal ways of working, for example, on poor quality chairs, under unsuitable lighting and without keyboards. Plus they will work for long periods under pressure without breaks. Completing a level in a game, against the clock or opponents, can take many hours during which time resting, stretching, eating and even sleeping will be forgotten.

These activities are starting at a very early age, with primary school children using tablets for study and play. US schools will purchase 3.5 million tablets in 2015, according to industry analysts, and worldwide, K-12 spending on tablets has increased 60 per cent over the last year.

In 2013 Katarzyna Stawarz and Rachel Benedyk from University College London published a study on the use of touch-screen tablets called Bent necks and twisted wrists: exploring the impact of touch-screen tablets on the posture of office workers. Their findings show that the lack of screen adjustability and the virtual keyboard encourage poor posture and tablet use could lead to discomfort in a number of body areas, especially the neck and wrists.

A Swiss study found lower back pain in children as young as six and a study in Finland found that MSD symptoms were common amongst adolescents and this was linked to computer use or gaming for more than two hours per day.

According to an American study (Manchikanti, 2000) 28 per cent of the industrial population will suffer from lower back pain and eight per cent will be “disabled” in any given year. People with back problems have, on average, more than ten days off work per episode. The average time between episodes is five years. For a 21 year-old retiring at 71 that is 100 days lost.

The desire or, as some see it, the necessity to be constantly connected conflicts with traditional attitudes to changing postures and the desirability of varying activities. Ask a young person to take a break from their desk computer and they will almost certainly switch to Facebook or Instagram on their smartphone.

Young people have a limited understanding of comfort and whether being comfortable is the same as being risk-free. Many have adopted a range of poor postures from a young age and for many years will feel no adverse effects. Despite efforts from ergonomists, medical practitioners, charities, pressure groups and caring parents, poor posture and its long-term effects are not discussed in schools and universities. As a result, the level of knowledge is low to non-existent.

The attitude of many people is that there isn’t a problem. Their dining table and chairs feel comfortable enough and they are so engrossed in their activities they won’t notice the stiffness and pain until they finally decide to move. The lack of lumbar support from kitchen chairs and stools, armchairs or sofas will not be considered, along with the hunched and rounded position of neck and shoulders. If there is an ache or tingling at the end of a four-hour session it will be dismissed with a shrug.

There are simple equipment-related solutions that can reduce problems and they deal with the traditional office environment first. The right basic equipment has to be in place before you can hope to start tackling the many variations and diverse habits.

So we should start with correct furniture in the office. Correct desks and chairs must be provided with all the necessary adjustability. If these are being used by a peripatetic workforce they must be adaptable for all the uses to which they will be put.

A fixed desktop computer available for use by different employees on a ‘hot desk’ basis must be adjustable to the needs of all the users. Laptop docking should be provided, where possible. This will be easier if machines are sourced to a common specification. At least the laptop user should have access to separate screen and keyboard. Physical adaptations will have to be instantly usable and ‘look cool’ to gain acceptance. For example, products such as the TabletRiser, UltraStand and Workfit-T are attractive, intuitive and effective.

Your product portfolio should also be reviewed. When was it last purged or added to? Speak to the IT department about current and future deployment plans. If your organisation has a ‘bring your own device’ (BYOD) policy, understand that policy and its impact on the use of devices at work.

Employers need to address not just the pre-existing MSDs and health conditions of new, young employees but also their attitudes. A different type of ergonomics education and a different approach to it will be needed to ensure the message gets through. We must integrate behaviour-change programmes into their well-being initiatives and, for maximum impact, ensure they use the latest technologies such as social media to convey their message.

Because of the increasingly blurred line between work and personal activities, these issues are very hard to manage. Many employers struggle to understand how far they can go when managing young workers.

How much do you know about what happens to your employees outside of work? You need to know how much exposure to technology and poor posture could be bringing MSD problems into work, especially where work may be blamed for issues that it is not responsible for.

The advice, training and support offered by employers must extend to the extra-curricular activities of staff and needs to be designed to address the ignorance and careless attitudes that prevail among young workers. Educating them on the risks and convincing them of the benefits of good practice is essential.

Take some time to consider the return on investment offered by an effective ergonomics risk management policy. A relatively small outlay now will deliver huge benefits in terms of staff well-being and productivity in the longer-term.

This is a heavily edited extract from the white paper ‘Preparing for the ergonomics tsunami – how to meet the biggest challenge of the millennial workforce’. You can obtain a copy of the full report from Cardinus Risk Management from the resources section of our website.

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