Australia’s business sectors are world class in many respects, but lag noticeably in ergonomics, according to Kirsty Angerer, Associate Ergonomist for Australia and NZ for ergonomics firm Humanscale.
Ergonomics is the study of people at work, and aims to optimise the work environment to keep people productive and healthy. Angerer will be addressing the topic of workplace ergonomic challenges in Australia at the upcoming Total Facilities EXPO in Sydney.
Australians, to be sure, are conscious of living in a healthy way, she noted. “The great thing about Australia is that the lifestyle is clearly amazing,” Angerer said. “You have the weather, and people are very much in tune with health and wellbeing. You’ll finish work at 5 or 6 pm and you’ll see bootcamps going on around the city. People are on the beach, swimming, conducting exercise wherever they are, and eating very healthy.”
Businesses in Australia, she said, have made great strides in addressing employee health. “We have organisations that are building wellness programs, and these include personal trainers, nutritionists, giving their staff healthy food snacks during the day, as well,” she said. “Maybe some yoga classes, just general health and wellbeing, whether that’s stress-related, physically related, mentally related, nutritionally related.”
Unfortunately, Angerer said, there has been a disconnect between promoting healthy lifestyles away from the workstation, and promoting health at the workstation itself. “The one thing I’ve noticed is that people have forgotten about the workstation wellness, and what happens there,” she said.
Modern office workers often spend more than eight hours per day at the workstation, and often many more hours working elsewhere with laptops and mobile phones. Australian standards covering workstations, however, date to the 1990s, and are inadequate to today’s work environment. “These standards have not been rewritten since 1990, so they’re getting pretty old now,” Angerer said.
“Whilst the guidelines are accurate in terms the ergonomic information they’re providing, they’re very specific to the old CRT monitors, they don’t include information about laptops, iphones, tablets, that sort of thing,” Angerer noted.
Further adding to the ergonomic challenge is the challenge posed by 24/7 connectivity. “With all the connectivity that we have around the world, people are no longer only sitting at a desk,” Angerer said. “They’re sitting at a coffee shop, they’re sitting in their bedroom at home, or at their dining room table, or at a meeting room or a breakout area.”
The standard office environment results in a host of physical issues. “If you work on a laptop, you start to create a posture that is kind of a hunched posture, kind of like a turtle posture,” Angerer said. “You start to lean forward, you shrug your shoulders, you have no back support, your neck is in the wrong position, you’ve got contact stress across your wrists and forearms. and most likely you’ve sat there for a long period of time so you start to get much more fatigued.”
Another common ailment is lower back discomfort. “The leading cause of lower back discomfort is that trunk flexion posture, or that leaning forward posture away from the back rest,” Angerer said. Many people complain about their chair and request a new, ergonomic chair. That’s misguided, Angerer said.
“The reality is that their posture has been driven by their monitor and their keyboard position,” she noted. “If they just put their monitor and keyboard much closer to them, it would actually force them to sit back into the chair and use their backrest much more easily and more comfortably.”
In addition, upper limb disorders are ubiquitous. “Anything to do with the wrists, the shoulders, the neck, as well, because of laptop use, mobile phone use,” Angerer said. “We’re no longer confined to the workstation. We’re using a phone on the way to a meeting. We’re looking down, flexing our necks downward at a laptop, and leaning forward.”
The solution is set them up with a good workstation, with good working ergonomic tools, she noted. “Our healthy workstation would consist of a desk, a keyboard tray, monitor arm, lighting, and a good working chair,” Angerer said. “That really creates an environment that you can adjust to suit yourself much better than the fixed environment.: Coupled with that, proper education to help employees learn to use the tools. “How do I use my workstation? What’s the best way to adjust my chair, my desk, my keyboard, my monitor?”
Beyond the hardware, of course, are behaviours. “How many breaks should I be taking during the day? Because you could have the best workstation setup in the world, but if you sat there for three or four hours before you get up and move, you’ll probably still suffer from lower back discomfort or upper limb disorders, as well,” Angerer noted.
In addition, most office workers spend at least a few hours per week working away from their primary workstation, which may not be personally optimised, or even adjustable. Angerer said those workers can implement a few key techniques to remain healthy.
“They should try and understand their working life, how do they work?” Angerer said. “Is it that they are constantly on a laptop, or can they change up their work routine, and work on a laptop for 40 minutes, and then move on to paperwork, or make a few phone calls. Then go back to the laptop workstation.”
Underlying these techniques are the ergonomic principles, which, Angerer said, are:
- Sit in a reclined position
- Try to keep your hands in your lap when you’re typing and mousing, or in that range
- Keep your monitor at eye level and arms length away. If you work on a laptop, you can raise it up on a box, and use a separate keyboard and mouse held at lap level.
Another option, Angerer said, is standing for part of the day. “I would advocate anyone to use a sit/stand workstation, but we would recommend that people sit for 40 minutes, and stand for 15-20 minutes every hour, rather than 3 hours of sitting, then 4 hours of standing,”
Finally, get away from the desk regularly. “We want you to move every hour, and also take breaks away from the workstation,” Angerer said. ‘A sit/stand desk is fantastic, as it offers so many benefits to the user, but you can also achieve those kind of benefits by just getting up and moving around the office, as well.”