Can Ergonomics Help Improve Your Workplace Health?

When you think of your job, what comes to mind? Maybe you imagine your co-workers, bosses or that mile-long to-do list. Or perhaps you think about your actual workplace, which might as well be your second home. But regardless of your position or industry, there's one thing you should always keep in mind: your body.

Remember, work isn't just a potential source of mental stress—all types of jobs pose a risk of physical stress, too. And if we're not careful, that physical stress can do a number on our overall wellness.

Which is where ergonomics comes in. Matt Likins, physical therapist at 1st Choice Therapy, defines ergonomics as the act of arranging a workplace to maximize efficiency while reducing the risk of pain and injury. "[After all, it's our] responsibility to keep ourselves in proper condition to reduce injuries and disability," he says.

Besides, we spend a lot of time at work. In 2017, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that employed Americans worked an average of 8.56 hours per weekday, or 42.8 hours a week. In the world of factory jobs and startup tech culture, working at least 50 to 60 hours a week is the norm.

Considering how often we work, being mindful of how we use our bodies is one of the best things we can do for ourselves. This starts with acknowledging the impact of sustained movements and positions, such as lifting items or sitting at a desk for hours on end. Over time, this repetition can work against our natural body mechanics, causing aches, pains and other chronic health issues.

So whether you're crunching numbers at a desk or adding parts to an assembly line, take a moment to learn how ergonomics can benefit your workplace health. By supporting your body during the daily grind, you can be sure that it will support you when you need it, too.

What Are the Most Common Workplace Injuries?

The physical stress of work is so significant that certain jobs are associated with certain injuries. For example, office jobs are known for causing neck pain. According to Kolbe Rubin, a physical therapist in Georgia, sitting at a desk all day often leads to slouching, which pulls your shoulders and head forward into kyphosis, lengthening and weakening the muscles that support good posture. Simultaneously, it tightens the tiny muscles at the base of your skull. The result is neck pain, which can lead to chronic headaches.

The Albert Einstein College of Medicine shares that office jobs also increase your risk for back pain, shoulder pain, eye strain and carpal tunnel syndrome.

In manual labor jobs, the most common injury is a herniated disc, also known as a slipped disc. The injury involves one of the jelly-like discs between the vertebrae of your spine. If you lift something incorrectly, a disc can slip out and irritate surrounding nerves. It's also extremely painful. Yet, this has less to do with the weight of an object and more to do with how it's lifted.<pagebreak>
"Most people know the age-old advice of 'lift with your legs', but in my experience, most people still don't know how to actually lift with their legs properly," Rubin explains. Basically, if you lift something in a way that strains your neck, shoulders or back, you can injure yourself. This can even happen with small loads, like a computer monitor.

All jobs also pose a risk for falls. Common causes include poor lighting, cluttered workspaces and wet floors.

Workplace injuries shouldn't discourage you, though. Rather, they should be the push you need to take responsibility for how you conduct yourself in the workplace. Working is a part of life, so we might as well do it in a way that keeps us safe. The key is to understand the factors that affect workplace safety and, therefore, our overall health.

How to Stay Safe at Work

Much like marathon training and healthy eating habits, workplace safety is a multifaceted concept. Likins shares that it should be approached from two angles: the environment and the people. "The environment point of view addresses design issues like avoiding potential injury and strain hazards, while the people point of view addresses things like physical conditioning [and] proper posture," he says.

Granted, we can't control every detail of our work environment, but by keeping the following aspects in mind, we can create a better (and safer) place to work.

Ergonomics: Environment

1. Use Proper Equipment

When we set up our homes and cars, we use items that work best for our needs. Why should our workplace be any different?

In the office, focus on equipment that supports your body. For example, a rolled-up towel, small pillow or lumbar support roll will protect the natural curvature of the lumbar spine, which promotes good posture and prevents back pain.

In industrial settings, Likins recommends using eye, ear and head protection when necessary. It's also wise to use protective gloves and work shoes that fit properly. Watch for wear and tear and replace these things as necessary.

We all have different jobs and bodies, so there isn't a "one-size-fits-all" list of equipment. A physical or occupational therapist can suggest the best items to keep you safe at work.

2. Use Equipment Properly

It's not just about what you use, but how you use it. This means adjusting equipment in a way that allows for ease and comfort. "If the ergonomics of your work [or] daily task station is set up to work for you, then good posture and body mechanics flow naturally," explains Rubin.

If you work at a computer, Rubin recommends setting your desk at eye level to avoiding looking down and straining your neck. It's also smart to keep items like your phone and paperwork nearby, so you don't have to reach far. Alessa Caridi, a certified Pilates instructor, functional fitness speaker and founder of JōbuFIT, also advises adjusting your seat so that it's parallel to the floor. Your feet should also be flat on the floor. If your feet can't reach the floor, the American Industrial Hygiene Association suggests using a footrest.

In an industrial setting, familiarize yourself with machine safety measures to ensure that everything is operating smoothly. Openly communicate with your co-workers, and don't hesitate to double (or triple) check when using heavy machinery or equipment. <pagebreak>
3. Keep It Clear

Clutter will only increase the risk of injury, so try to keep your workspace as tidy as possible. This includes the area around and under your desk, too.

From open file drawers to exposed electrical cords, almost anything can cause trips and falls. Don't forget about wet floors, too. Use a "wet floor" sign or give the janitorial staff a heads up if you've spilled water or notice a slippery area. Even if you didn't cause the spill, this small gesture can prevent serious injuries.

Ergonomics: People

1. Position Yourself Correctly

Proper equipment may be important, but it isn't everything. The way you use your body makes all the difference. Caridi points out, for example, that it doesn't matter if you spend a million dollars on an ergonomic chair that has it all. "If you don't know how your body works, the chair is working against you," she says.

If you work at a desk, place your feet on the floor. Your hips and knees should form 90-degree angles. When doing activities like typing and stapling, use the least force possible.

"Sit up tall [and] make sure all 10 toes are pointed forward," adds Caridi. "You'd be amazed at the amount of body pain that can be relieved."

2. Lift Properly

Your neck, shoulders and back are extremely vulnerable, so it's crucial to lift in a way that protects these areas.

First, don't be afraid to ask a co-worker for help. Second, when you do lift something, use your legs instead of your back to rise. Keep your back in a straight position throughout and don't twist your body. When you set something down, continue to use your legs instead of your back.

3. Take Breaks

Repetitive movements are a natural part of work. Yet, repetition is exactly what leads to physical stress. To limit the risk of injury, prioritize taking regular breaks. A break can be as simple as getting out of your chair or stretching your arms. When possible, alternate tasks to switch it up.

The Link Between Exercise and Workplace Injuries

We all know regular exercise is good for the body and mind. It's linked to weight maintenance, stress relief and blood glucose control—just to name a few. But beyond these benefits, regular exercise can also limit and prevent workplace injuries before they happen.

Exercise promotes proper movement and prevents chronic pain, and can also help you fall in a way that protects your body, says Caridi. Plus, regular physical activity helps you sleep better, which allows you to pay more attention as you move around at work.

As Likins tell us, physical conditioning can reduce the risk of injury during sports and other activities. "[So], why not apply this for the physical demands of work?" <pagebreak>

How to Exercise for Optimal Workplace Wellness

While any exercise is better than no exercise, there are specific things you can do to reduce your risk of workplace injury. Exercises focusing on muscular strength and good posture will help you body properly support itself throughout the day. They will also elongate your muscles, which offsets the pain caused by tight muscle fibers.

1. Stretch

"As our bodies age, our range of motion declines," explains Caridi. "This can make simple things like reaching [for] plates on high shelves a hazard."

Stretching and elongating the muscles can help prevent a poor range of motion. However, this doesn't mean you need to break out in sun salutations. It's possible to stretch it out in a work-friendly way.

Again, a physical or occupational therapist can demonstrate the best moves for your job. But if you need some inspiration, Rubin suggests the following exercises:
  • Scapular retractions involve squeezing your shoulder blades together. This opens the muscles that connect the front of your chest with the shoulders and upper arms. It also reactivates the muscles in the upper back.
  • Cervical retractions involve shifting your head backward—without tucking your chin down—until you have a double chin. It may sound silly, but this move lengthens the muscles in the base of your skull and encourages healthy alignment.
2. Align Your Spine

Workplace injury prevention also involves proper body alignment. According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, "alignment" refers to the way your ankles, knees, hips, shoulders, head and spine line up with each other. When everything is aligned, it puts less pressure on the spine, which encourages better posture while reducing pain.

To align your body, focus on strengthening your core with exercises like sit-ups, crunches and toe touches. A strong core will take stress off your spine. 

3. Resistance Training

Resistance training trains your muscle memory. This way, your body can work for you in a safe manner. Strong muscles also provide support without getting irritated. Essentially, when you work your muscles, they'll work for you, too.

While all types of resistance training can help, office employees will greatly benefit from core strengthening exercises. Again, these moves will de-stress your spine. If you work manual labor, Rubin recommends resistance training with weights at least once a week.

4. Walk

Exercising for workplace health doesn't have to be complicated. At the very least, you can make time to walk around at work.

"Add movement [whenever] you can," Caridi encourages. Do a lap around the office or use the bathroom on another floor. If you want to ask a co-worker if they're free for lunch, walk over instead of shooting them a text.

"Not only will this sneak movement into your day, [but it] will give your brain a mental mini break [as well]", says Caridi.

Ergonomics might feel complicated or overwhelming, but it's all about small changes. Slowly adjust your workplace environment and incorporate habits like regular breaks and stretching, and, with practice and patience, you can start protecting your body during the daily hustle.