While a safe work environment reduces productivity losses, as employees are able to do their work safely, good ergonomics allows them to perform at their best, thereby improving productivity even more.

Ergonomics is the study of the work environment. It considers ways in which the environment can be optimised to ensure that an employee is sitting or standing comfortably and able to perform at their best.

Jessica Hutchings, president of the Ergonomics Society of South Africa (ESSA), and Sally Lombaert, secretary of the ESSA, explain that ergonomics has many benefits.

“Integrating ergonomics into the safety culture of an organisation has several benefits, such as employee engagement, improved quality of work, increased productivity and reduced costs relating to absenteeism and/or injuries,” they say.

Hutchings and Lombaert further add: “An employee that does not suffer fatigue or discomfort in the workplace tends to be more productive and shows appreciation towards the organisation for taking an interest in their health and safety, thus further boosting the safety culture of the organisation.

“By considering ergonomics in the workplace, businesses can benefit from improved employee performance and a more efficient workforce, which results in greater productivity.”

Tracey Palay, a physiotherapist at Ergotherapy Solutions (which provides ergonomic chairs and accessories), notes that, according to recent studies, 80 percent of employees become increasingly uncomfortable as the day progresses. Between 60 and 90 percent of people will experience work-related lower-back disorders during their professional career.

“Technological advances have made work processes efficient in many ways, but, as a result, employees are moving less. The human body is not designed to remain in one position for long periods of time. The modern workplace is, therefore, becoming dangerous with extended periods of sitting (often in an awkward sitting posture), small repetitive movements and glare from the computer screen,” Palay says.

Luckily, companies and individuals can counteract these negative effects of modern workstations. Ergonomics requires companies to consider the user, their task, the environment, the necessary equipment and the organisation, itself, when setting up a workstation.

Seating is, for example, a very important tool for most employees. Palay explains that incorrect seating posture can cause the spine to curve outwards instead of inwards. This puts pressure onto discs in between each vertebra. She adds: “If the problem is not resolved it can result in a ‘slipped’ or herniated disc.”

As the body is not designed to remain seated for long periods, the muscles start to get tired. The first muscles prone to fatigue are the core stability muscles. These assist the spine to stabilise the neutral position.

“As a result, employees end up slouching and start to compensate by using other muscles, which become overloaded and painful. This is exacerbated if they are sitting at awkward angles, as certain muscles are either overstretched or shortened, causing them to become weaker or less flexible and predisposing them to injury,” Palay states.

She suggests maintaining a neutral spinal position in line with the lumbar spine through correct positioning of the chair, monitor, keyboard, mouse and paperwork to optimise back, neck and head postures. Strength and flexibility can be maintained with specific stretches.

“Sitting in the correct chair, for example the Get One by Ergotherapy Solutions, will best facilitate the neutral spinal position,” Palay notes.

Palay continues: “Both excessive sitting and excessive standing can cause injuries. The key to addressing this is balance. I would recommend a Varidesk, which allows an employee to switch between sitting and standing in less than three seconds. When standing for several hours a day (especially on a hard floor), use an anti-fatigue mat to protect the body from common ailments.”

The best approach to implementing an ergonomic-friendly workplace is by sourcing the expertise of an ergonomist. Hutchings and Lombaert say: “An ergonomist can assist companies by conducting a basic risk assessment, which highlights any hazards and the associated risks in the workplace, and provide possible countermeasures to assist in improving the workplace.”

They add that an ergonomist will commonly look for low or no-cost solutions for a company. A slight adjustment to a seat or monitor can make a significant difference. Something as simple as overhead florescent lights can contribute to headaches and eye strain.

“Ensuring that the employees are trained on good ergonomic practices has also helped many employees to ensure that their workplace is comfortable, healthy and safe, resulting in direct benefits for both the employer and employee,” Hutchings and Lombaert add.

They conclude: “Both the employee and the employer have a responsibility to ensure that the work environment is safe, comfortable and adheres to sound ergonomic practices. Training in the basic principles of office ergonomics creates a culture of ‘self-reliance’, which enables employees to make workstation adjustments that can improve their own comfort.”

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