A path from ergonomics’ usual areas – into links to sustainability
Performance and wellbeing are cornerstones of a forward-looking modern workplace. To optimise these, a focus on workplace ergonomics is essential. From software usability, through to reducing strain in manual handling tasks, ergonomic principles help people achieve the best they can as safely as possible.
Performance is only good performance, if it is also safe and healthy performance. If it is not safe or risks the health of employees then any short-term gains will most likely be lost over time to absenteeism and staff turnover.
This of course means that physical and mental health are key aspects of wellbeing and the workplace can only support them if processes, equipment and activities take the human element of the whole work system into account.
From training, to understanding, to sustainability
Coming from a health and safety angle, a lot of my focus has been on higher risk manual handling and repetitive upper limb work – assessing the risks and identifying controls. Since working independently it is clearer that although there are still many issues in the industrial / manufacturing environment, the nature of our economy means that there are massive numbers of people annually still developing musculoskeletal disorders simply from sitting at a desk and using a computer. This is not news – but as an ergonomist it is important enough to keep mentioning – again – and again!
When I deliver computer workstation training I ask at the start for a show of hands – “How many people have had an assessment before?” and “How many people have had training in how to set up safely and comfortably?” If I am lucky, around half put their hands up. Even though there has been a requirement to do both of these since 1992 – for 27 years at the time of writing this!! – there are still enormous numbers of people who have never been assessed or trained.
Research indicates that between 25% and 60% of office chair users had never adjusted them!! (via Underwood, 2019).
The most rewarding reaction I get when I do desk assessments, is showing someone an adjustment facility which they had no idea was even there! (top tip – it is usually the seat pan depth – or the forward tilt, if either of those are options!). In many cases people have been using the chair for years – but often put up with being uncomfortable.
Now – into sustainability
Simple adjustments can make a real difference to people. More importantly from a sustainability and environmental point of view, a visit from an ergonomics consultant or OH professional / physiotherapist should not automatically result in new chairs etc., with old equipment ending up on the scrap heap. As a practitioner this is something that can put people off having assessments done; “It will end up costing us lots of money..”. Often it is simply a case of getting people to familiarise themselves with what they already have – giving them the knowledge to make changes themselves and the ability to maintain them, and to take control of their workstation and environment. That said – there are nevertheless a lot of chairs out there that are – (putting it in the nicest possible way) – ‘unsuitable’!
The links between ergonomics and sustainability are not always immediately apparent. Even though there is an underlying feeling that they ought to be congruent – and surely must be tied in some underlying way, researchers have struggled to forge clear links. A flurry of reviews and research on this was published in 2012/2013 (Haslam & Waterson, 2013), and even then it was clear that for ergonomics to ‘get in on sustainability’, the definition needed to be a wide one; sustainability needed to take into account aspects like organisational longevity and sustainable use of human resources.
A plan – an opportunity
If we’re happy to stick with this broader definition, and accept the line of thinking that Corporate Social Responsibility goes hand-in-hand with sustainability, then if we consider human resource sustainability for the long-term there is now a unique opportunity for organisations. The workforce of the future are exposed to a unique set of musculoskeletal risks. Mobile devices – smartphones and tablets – are used now by many people intensively almost from birth. The impact of the poor posture that these devices result in is already seeing younger and younger children seeking help from physiotherapists and osteopaths. The idea that these individuals will one day enter the workforce should be a real concern to the business community.
The answer – (or a large part of it) is to train staff now in how to manage the risks, spread the word, spread good practice as being ‘the norm’, and encourage it to filter down to younger generations via social contact and family life etc. By doing this you/we are helping to sustain human resources for the future – meaning better productivity and enhanced wellbeing for the next 20 to 30 years and beyond.
The result – Corporate Social Responsibility and meeting legal duties all wrapped up in one tidy package.
(2013) Ergonomics and Sustainability, Ergonomics, 56:3, 343-347
Underwood, D., Sims, R (2019) Do office workers adjust their chairs? End-user knowledge, use and barriers to chair adjustment. Applied Ergonomics. 77. 100-106.