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Implementing an Ergonomics Program

Improve conditions at the office and you’ll have happier, healthier workers,and higher productivity. Rather than wait for more legislation to mandate conditions at the office, you can begin planning right now to implement a comprehensive ergonomic strategy that will improve employee morale and boost your bottom line. Since the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is taking an active role in the implementation of ergonomically correct workplaces, certain rules do apply. In a paper presented by OSHA representatives at the National Safety Council’s Symposium of Ergonomics, they outlined warning signs to look for when developing an ergonomics program. Following are some hints on determining if there are problem areas in your office. Lighting Some simple visual checks can help determine if office lighting is suitable: a. Check for monitor or shiny surface glare. b. Can the computer users control the light level in their area? c. Hold your hand over a white piece of paper on your desk; if you see head and/or hand shadows overhead, lights are the culprit. d. Shade your eyes with your hand; if the lighting appears to improve, it isn’t good lighting. e. Hold your hand about 10 inches from your desk; if you see a sharp, defined shadow your lighting is too harsh. There are two types of lighting commonly used in the office direct and indirect. Each type has its own unique health and safety advantages and disadvantages. Direct overhead light fixtures, or luminaires, are fluorescent with either a prismatic lens or parabolic louvers. Prismatic lenses are the least expensive and the most common office light fixtures. Prismatic luminaires have the advantage of producing uniform light in a room. Their disadvantage is they are a source of direct glare for users and computer monitors. Parabolic fixtures use a variety of parabolic louvers from plastic panes with small squares to fixtures that have large cells integral to the fixture. Prismatic luminaires direct the light down and in a shallower angle, reducing the amount of direct and reflected glare. The disadvantage of this type of light fixture is being able to look directly into the bright light source because of the shallow light angle. Indirect lighting is accomplished by reflecting light from a white ceiling. The result is a pleasant, soft illumination that reduces glare throughout the entire office. The recent introduction of furniture-integrated lighting makes the total design process easier and, in most cases, less expensive. When looking at your overall lighting situation, consider the needs of the workers. If your people need more light and do not work at terminals, consider moving them close to a window if possible. Reorientation of work areas to reduce either direct or indirect glare is another low-cost alternative to a major office lighting overhaul. Look into replacing your existing lenses and/or looking at high-efficiency replacement bulbs. Chairs Proper posture when working depends largely on the type of chair being used. Questions to ask about your chairs include: a. Do the chairs adjust for individual needs? b. Do they provide lumbar support? c. Are foot rests provided for people whose feet don’t touch the floor? A general test for overall posture efficiency is to observe individuals seated at their terminals. Are they in a basically neutral position, which means the body is in alignment with minimal stress on joints or strain on muscles? In a neutral position, the wrists follow the plane of the arm without being bent or flexed and the spine is in its natural “S” curve (the same shape as when the individual is standing). Watch the individual’s seated positions in relation to each task. In keyboard-intensive work, like data input, users will tend to lean forward while those using data processing,which requires less keyboard activity,have a tendency y to lean back. If an area of your body is giving you discomfort, be aware that the solution may be ergonomically correctable. The American National Standards Institute, a standards-setting body, has specific recommendations for chair design and style. They cover everything from general seating to specific seat widths, heights, angles, and backrest specifications. Most chair manufacturers adhere to these standards, but if you’re considering new or replacement chairs, check with the manufacturer to see if they do. Work Surfaces There can be several variables here according to the task. Looking at your computer use data will help you determine what work surface is best for the task. Typically, a casual computer user may have a standard desk while the moderate user may find it more comfortable to have a wrist rest or adjustable keyboard surface. The intensive user may work best with a work surface specifically designed for computer users. Dual adjustable work surfaces have the ability to change separately both keyboard and work surface height. Two benefits are gained with this type of setup: 1. Individuals can adjust the work surface to suit their needs and comfort. 2. Stress is minimized by changing the work surface height during the day. Many office equipment manufacturers have furniture lines designed specifically for computer users. For example, Steelcase Furniture of Grand Rapids, MI, has a complete line of adjustable work surface furniture. In fact, some lines have a computer system that allows the operator to program automatic height changes over the course of a day. Another option when designing a work area is to take a modular approach. Here, work surface and lighting are integral to the work area and the design’s flexibility allows for easy alteration and adjustment. Another advantage with this type of system is the ability to set up work areas ergonomically correct for the task. This could end up cutting expenses in the long run. With correct lighting and a work surface independent of a total office environment, you have localized cost versus the cost of a complete office overhaul. Sound Another distracting and stressful problem is noise. In the computer environment, noise will commonly come from two sources, computers and impact printers (dot matrix and daisy wheel). Central Processing Unit (CPU): There is not much ergonomically that can be done with the CPU, but some power supplies are extremely noisy. Listening to the whine of the fan all day can become an irritation. There are units made that have low noise levels. When buying a new system, ask about what is furnished, and see if an alternative is available. When replacing power supplies, consider putting in a more quiet unit. Impact printers: Printer location is important for access and is limited in how far it can be from the sending terminal (unless on a network). Newer dot matrix printers have what is termed “quiet mode,” but print speed suffers. A better choice may be a printer shroud to help abate noise to acceptable levels. Several types are available with varying quieting characteristics to suit your particular need. Monitors Factors to consider in relation to monitors include: a. Are they at the recommended height, tilt, and viewing distance? b. Do they have a high-polished or etched face? c. Look at how the text is displayed. Most people favor dark characters on a light background; this display configuration seems to be the easiest on the eyes and for reading. Several types of glare-reducing screens are on the market. These range from a cloth mesh that covers the screen face to polarized screens. Often it is possible to reduce glare with a simple cardboard shield over the top of the monitor. Though it may be a temporary fix. it can reduce glare fatigue until you find a better solution. Finding the best solution depends on your particular situation and work need. Monitors may be a potential hazard in ELF (extremely low frequency) electromagnetic emissions. If this is a concern for you or your employees, several manufacturers produce screens that they claim will reduce or eliminate any potentially harmful emissions. There are other issues surrounding monitors. Much has been discussed and touted about resolution, dot pitch, interlaced, non-interlaced, and other monitor terminology. These factors are important, but before making a decision look at the task and the user. Using your workforce computer-use scorecard will help you determine the best monitor for the job. Keyboards Are keyboards in your office at the correct height? If the keyboard support surface is adjustable, ANSI recommends a height of from 23 to 28 inches. If it’s not adjustable, the height must accommodate the size of the largest person. There are several wrist rests and wrist supports being marketed to reduce stress on the wrist. Some are nothing more than a pad placed in front of the keyboard for support. Another form is a brace attached to the forearm that prevents bending of the wrist. A more dramatic approach is a complete redesign of the standard QWERTY keyboard. One ergonomic approach is a keyboard that has split halves, allowing the palms to face each other. This is a more natural and comfortable hand position. Each of these devices has its particular advantage and varying cost; the keyboard is the most expensive. If you decide on a wrist rest, look for one that is adjustable. Preventive Maintenance To make any program work, those involved must buy into it. The advantage a good ergonomic program has is its inherent goodwill theme,workers and management joining forces to improve workingg conditions for everyone. Productivity has a correlation to stress; reduce stress and productivity will benefit. The other element in this is personal well-being. Proper lighting, posture, and office environment will reduce time lost due to potentially debilitating problems. Look at ergonomics as a preventive maintenance program, reducing or eliminating hazards before they take their toll. Lori Carson is an Worksite Wellness Consultant based in Seattle.

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