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Office Ergonomics at Portland State University
Author: Jason Mitchell, Industrial Hygienist
Posted: December 15, 2007
Words of Wisdom
"We sit at breakfast, we sit on the train on the way to work, we sit at work, we sit at lunch, we sit all afternoon…a hodgepodge of sagging livers, sinking gall bladders, drooping stomachs, compressed intestines, and squashed pelvic organs."

by Dr. John Button

At PSU through the Environmental Health and Safety (EH&S) group, managers, supervisors, and employees are encouraged to be knowledgeable in basic ergonomic principles. Ergonomic principles use design factors with the intention to maximize productivity by minimizing worker fatigue and discomfort. Stated more simply, it is fitting the workplace to the worker and examining the interaction between the worker and his or her environment.

A collaborative process around ergonomics reduces the risks of repetitive strain injuries - identifying and mitigating unhealthy repetition, exertions, and postures. Workers play a pivotal role in their own wellness by practicing safe work habits, reporting activities that are causing them discomfort, and in many cases, identifying risks and recommending solutions.

The EH&S Department manages the office ergonomics program at Portland State University and plays an advisory role in worker safety. Some of the services include office ergonomic evaluations, services, and training at no charge. Even though many risk factors may be addressed through common sense solutions, a formal office ergonomic evaluation can provide expert advice to both increase comfort and reduce the risk of repetitive strain injury at video display terminals. To request a full ergonomic evaluation, submit a work order to Facilities and Planning under "Environmental Health/Safety Issues." For other assistance, contact EH&S at extension 5268.

In the meantime, some of the more common concerns for those of us who manage employees and/or work in the office environment are:

  • Chair Selection

    The chair is one of the most important elements of a workstation. At the very least, the chair should be in operable condition, fit the employee, and include an adjustable seat pan and backrest tilt. This will allow the employee to sit comfortably and vary their posture throughout the day, helping to avoid fatigue and discomfort. More advanced task chairs, if possible, are recommended because they are more effective in allowing the operator to intuitively avoid harmful static postures with hands free operation. They may also be necessary in case the employee has injuries or discomfort that prevents them from properly using a task chair.

  • Neutral Body Positioning

    The employee's workstation should be configured to minimize musculoskeletal strain by promoting neutral body positioning. This includes placing the work surface and display at a comfortable height, placing the employee's work in line with the center of their body, and placing all frequently used items easily within the employee's reach. Workstation accessories such as an adjustable keyboard tray may further improve posture and help mitigate strain. To avoid static postures, the workstation should also have enough clearance to allow the employee to vary their posture throughout the day.

  • Pacing

    Frequent breaks and change are recommended to prevent harmful levels of stress from static postures and repetition. It is recommended that employees spend no more than one hour on any given task without taking a five-minute break to help their body recover from the strain associated with that activity. This break may include other work tasks. Frequent ten to fifteen second pauses may also be used to relieve the body during moderate to intense sessions of keyboard and pointing device use. Administrators can also adjust job design, staffing, and work schedules to help employees avoid harmful levels of repetition.

Many solutions are simple and inexpensive, and costs associated with breaks and equipment can be expected to pay-off as a result of increased productivity from a healthy, comfortable employee. If a department needs to invest in new equipment for an employee, suitable equipment can sometimes be found in surplus. Shipping, Mail, and Delivery Services have some used systems and freestanding furniture that can provide a good solution in many circumstances. Less frequently, they will have a suitable adjustable keyboard tray and/or task chair. A supervisor can expect to spend five- to six-hundred dollars to purchase a new chair and an adjustable keyboard tray. Although this is expensive to our departments, the up-front cost needs to be compared to that of an injured employee or an employee who is not productive due ergonomic distractions.

EH&S has posted materials online concerning policy and procedure, safe work practices, workstation guidelines, product information, and internal and external resources at: http://www.ehs.pdx.edu/Sections/OfficeErgonomicsProgram/index.php

We wish you success in promoting a safe work environment. Please feel free to contact Environmental Health and Safety for assistance.

Work Safe!