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Pain In The Workplace

By: Steve Ogden

Getting to know your body, the positions you work in, and your workstation can help reduce incidents of pain symptoms associated with working in an office, says Steve Ogden of GENEX Services of Canada, Inc.

Picture this: a workstation that has been meticulously designed and set up, considering every aspect of the individual’s body dimensions. This is a workstation, with more bells and whistles than a loaded Hummer. Adjustable everything starting with the office chair and working up to the keyboard, then desk, and finally the computer monitor – a monitor so large it would rival even a big screen television! I want you to imagine a workstation set up and design that only your high school creative writing teacher could have conjured up.

Now I want you to take a look around your current office workspace, the one you work at every day. How close does it come? Believe it or not, many people do in fact have many aspects of these high quality workstations. So why am I called forward to do so many ergonomic assessments? I review these workstations primarily because the individuals working at them complain of various pain symptoms, including upper extremity pain, back pain, and headaches. Why is it that these individuals with high quality equipment and tools, still complain of pain symptoms? Although I am not a doctor and I certainly don’t claim to know every musculo-skeletal syndrome, I do know that more often than not there is a commonality found in these situations. It is not the tools or equipment, but the awareness of those who use them.

Sufficient Equipment

It is time for a little test. Take a look at the office chair that you are sitting in right now. How many different settings are there? How many levers are under the seat pan, if any? If your chair is adjustable, how many times do you adjust it in a work day? Too often when I ask these questions during an ergonomic assessment, the individual has no idea what the levers that manipulate their chair actually do. Keep in mind this is a chair that they use eight to 10 hours a day in some cases. The point here is that like the workstation described above, many individuals currently have sufficient equipment needed to safely and effectively function without putting undo stress and strain on themselves.

This is where basic education and common sense come into play. Get to know your body, the positions you work in, and your workstation. Understand your tasks, your habits, both good and bad, and how you can best use the equipment available. Posture and motion are two very big risk factors associated with office ergonomics and although we can never totally eliminate all risk factors, with education we can drastically reduce them. For example, by changing the angle of your seat pan, you can alter your sitting posture which will help create more blood flow throughout your body. A standard rule regarding sitting postures and chair positioning is the 90/90/90 rule; this means your hips, elbows and knees should all be at 90 degrees while working. Don’t be afraid to use the functions your chair has to offer to change your sitting postures as you change work tasks throughout a work day.

By listening to your body, you can also help to reduce some of the pain and discomfort associated with prolonged periods of sitting at a desk. If you have been sitting for an extended period of time, get up and change your position – perhaps do some photocopying, get a drink of water, read this article while standing! I think you get my point. I don’t care what kind of chair you have or how much money you paid for it, if you don’t use your chair properly, and you spend too much time in a seated position without frequent breaks, your chance of associated back and neck pain increases.

Repetitive Tasks

Also, be aware of performing repetitive tasks around your workstation. The biggest one that I commonly see is with mouse usage. Injuries can occur because often the dominant arm is reaching or extending out to the side and forward to a higher surface to operate the mouse. Ensure that you do not “hover” over the mouse while reading text on your monitor, let your arm relax on your lap or on your arm rest between tasks. Moreover, do not rest your wrist on your desk while operating the mouse. This can also cause some pain and numbness in your hand/wrist/forearm secondary to the repetitive nature of the mouse task.

Although it would be nice for us all to have that wide-screen monitor, most of us do not. Computer screens are usually between 12 and 17 inches – not quite the size you want to watch the game on! Problems associated with the computer monitor are issues that I commonly deal with in ergonomic assessment. It is important that you be aware of the eye strain that can be associated with prolonged reading from your monitor. Remember that your eyes need rest too! Looking at a fixed monitor all day can contribute to eye strain and headaches. Generally, the closer the monitor is to you, the more eye strain occurs. The easiest solution to reduce this problem is to occasionally look away from your monitor to far away spots, which helps relax and ‘stretches’ your eyes. Also, if glare is a problem ensure that the monitor screen is positioned at right angles to windows and lights. This will help prevent eye fatigue and dryness as well.

Even if you don’t have the Utopia of workspaces, there is still a lot that can be done to make your environment ‘ergonomically effective.’ Educating yourself with the equipment around you, as well as your work habits, can help to reduce those nagging aches and pains associated with repetitive activities. Proper use of your current office equipment is paramount in combating re-occurring pain symptoms, regardless of the equipment you have. Frequently changing your body positioning, taking ministretch breaks to reduce the amount of static sitting, and reducing repetitive tasks will help to lower your possibility of injury.

Steve Ogden is a kinesiologist and customer services representative with GENEX Services of Canada, Inc.

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