After more than thirty-four years of naturopathic medical practice, the last seventeen with an emphasis on physical medicine, I know that statistics show that the most dangerous jobs are in the fishing and construction industries. But for most people, the workstation is the most dangerous places that they can spend their time. Your desk is a dangerous place if it isn’t customized to fit your body. Do you know somebody who has been crippled with carpal tunnel syndrome? Or do you know an office worker with chronic neck or low back problems? These are problems that are caused, or at least aggravated by a poorly arranged workstation. If you spend more than two hours a day at a desk or on your computer, then you need to pay attention to the ergonomics of your desk.
SOME HISTORY ABOUT WORKSTATION SAFETY:
The US government began researching this situation in the 1980s, and laws regarding the safety of the workplace have mandated that office desks (workstations) must be customized to fit the worker in order for the desk to be a safe place.
I first began seeing my patients with repetitive usage injuries from improperly set up workstations in the 1980s. The rash of carpal tunnel surgeries that you been in vogue over the past six or eight years are created, in part, from the bad workstations that the baby boomers had during the 1980s and 1990s. Since US law was already in place defining proper workplaces, the employers were required to furnish safe work environments. So they were responsible for these injuries. Workmen’s compensation attorneys picked up on this, which led to some sizable settlements and to placing many people on permanent disability pensions, all from bad workstation environments.
ARE YOU IN DANGER, TOO?
You should be concerned about this, if you are an office worker and have chronic pains in your eyes, head, neck, arms, low back, or buttocks. Your workplace is suspect if your head or neck bothers you or if you have eyestrain after you sit at your computer for a while, or if your arms feel fatigued or heavy after you work for a while or if your low back and/or pelvis feel strained or achy after working at your desk. If you have headache, neck, or back problems—whether or not you work at a desk—then redesign your workstation to prevent further damage and get your physical structure fixed (chiropractic or massage will not be enough).
What can you do? First, consider that there is a world out there that doesn’t require computers or desks to operate. So go outside and be active! If you can afford it, get work that doesn’t require you to spend a majority of your day harnessed to a workstation. Second, if you must spend so much time at a workstation, work with your employer to modify your workplace to fit your body. Third, take hourly breaks from your desk, and be physically active for three to five minutes.
REDESIGNING YOUR WORKPLACE:
First, you should get a chair that feels comfortable to your buttocks and low back. This chair must also position you to sit with your feet flat on the floor with your knees at a 90 degree angle. So when you sit your thighs are parallel with the ground. This will prevent knee, foot, or ankle problems from being created by your workstation.
Next, find a desk that has its working surface or keyboard tray positioned so that your upper arms hang straight down and your lower arms reach straight out to the keyboard tray. In these more enlightened times, many desks will have keyboard trays at the proper heights for most office chairs. It is important that you try to keep your hands parallel with the keyboard as your type, or that you place keyboard (wrist) pads in front of your keyboard and use them to minimize repetitive strain injuries of the wrists. You must also place your mouse close to the keyboard so that you are not reaching out, just to use your mouse.
Third, (and this will be the hardest) position your monitor at a height so that you are looking straight across from your eyes to the monitor. Tilting your head down to see your monitor is really hard on your neck. If you are using a notebook computer, then you should not use it more than an hour or two daily. Instead, use an additional monitor placed at the proper height or use a separate keyboard with the notebook placed at a height that requires no head tilt to see the monitor, either of these methods will permit a proper workstation setup.
ANTICIPATING FUTURE MODIFICATIONS OF SAFE WORKPLACE RULES:
Currently there are no requirements in the workplace rules for telephone usage and safety, but it is obvious that a headset is essential if you spend much of your workplace time on the telephone. There are patients of mine who spend hours each day with wireless headsets and they are reporting weird health problems; I think that it is safest to use the wired headsets. Similarly, I think that it is best to have your workplace using a wired LAN network instead of a wireless network. My most sensitive patients are reporting health problems around wireless networks, and I suspect the rest of us will be noting these subtle changes as the years pass.
Lighting is another big issue. You have probably seen full spectrum and non-glare lighting touted for their “health benefits”. They really help, especially with reducing eyestrain and eye fatigue. It is already becoming common for workplaces to utilize improved lighting because the employees are more productive. For the employees with stupid employers, they will have to wait until newer safety standards mandate these changes. In the interim, consider getting a small full spectrum, non-glare light and placing it near your workstation, where it seems to most reduce your eyestrain.
So, even if you don’t like your job, you can use these tips to make your workplace a place that you like!