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Designing healthy work environments

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As part of this, we offer FASTFacts – a series of specialist summaries that give no-nonsense information on topics of importance with signposting to further sources for the expert reader.

In this edition, Tim Hutchings, president at Humanscale International, emphasises the importance of comfortable working environments in our digital age.

Ergonomics defined

Ergonomics is the applied science of fitting the physical environment to the worker. When ergonomic design principles are applied to a space, employee comfort improves, risk of injury decreases and worker efficiency is enhanced.

Even without guidance, proper work tools and training, employees tend to self-diagnose their discomforts and reconfigure their workstations themselves, often yielding poor results. This practice not only negatively impacts the aesthetics of the space but ultimately costs organisations money.

Workplace comfort = workplace productivity

Enlightened organisations are beginning to see the link between worker discomfort and the loss of productivity. It is anticipated that one-third of the UK population will be over age 50 by 2020 with a further 20 years of working ahead of them, and here we begin to see the scale of the problem. Proactively addressing discomfort levels becomes an important business strategy.

Nomadic working

We are able to work from anywhere at anytime, and it is no longer a rarity to see employees tapping away on smartphones in cafes or on a train. We don’t have much control of our environment when on the road; we work in places that make us hunch our backs to conform to whatever seating we’re in, flex our necks to see the screen and shrug our shoulders to reach the keyboard.

Fundamental design challenges

Our population ranges in height from less than 5’0″ tall to more than 6’6″, and yet the standard work surface height is fixed at 29.5″. A 29.5″ work surface height correlates to the seated elbow height of a 6’4″ male (less than 5% of our population). Simply stated, the majority of work surface heights in modern offices are simply too high for most. As a result, employees are forced to conform their bodies to an inappropriate fixed height by shrugging their shoulders, raising their chairs and leaning forward to type and use the mouse. Awkward postures such as these require excessive muscle effort and lead to discomfort and fatigue.

Standard desk height, however, is only one area of ergonomic concern. The need to accommodate individual differences with respect to monitor positioning, lighting requirements and chair design is just as critical. Workers should have control over their environments, including their hand and wrist position, monitor position and individual light level. Individual control combined with high-quality ergonomics training will consistently yield safe and productive workers.

Improve hand and wrist posture

While the postural problems and associated injury mechanisms are fairly complex, design solutions aimed at improving hand and wrist posture are relatively simple to implement. Applied ergonomics research has shown us that a ‘hands in lap posture’ is the ideal ‘keyboard and mouse’ position for those who are able to type proficiently. Lowering the keys and angling them slightly away from the body reduces shoulder shrugging and helps to straighten the wrists. Installing an articulating keyboard support is the most cost-effective means of achieving postural improvement. Employees may respond negatively to this solution at first, either because they have had a bad experience with a poorly designed keyboard support that interfered with their knees or because they were never shown how to properly use the device. With training, organisations can expect a 90% acceptance rate. Rejection rates among users without training typically exceed 50%. The behavioural changes required to utilise the tray correctly will not occur through installation alone.

Task seating

Selecting a chair that is easy to adjust, provides support and promotes movement is critical for maintaining healthy body posture. The typical office worker will likely spend more time sitting in their chair than they will spend anywhere else in the workplace. Frequent postural shifts are recommended to minimise static muscle contractions and fatigue. The best chair self-adjust is based on the user’s body weight, simplifying the operation of the chair and ensuring the user is maintaining spinal health.

Monitor positioning

Providing computer users with flexibility over monitor positioning is another important strategy for maintaining high levels of operator comfort. We tend to look downward naturally at 15 degrees; the top line of text on the monitor height should be placed no higher than eye level and at about an arm’s reach from the body. Multiple monitor setups are challenging from an ergonomics perspective because they impact body alignment. Adjustable flat panel monitor arms can be used to aid with proper positioning and alignment and can also help to free up previously used desk space.

Task lighting

Most office environments are drastically over-lit from an ambient perspective, at tremendous energy waste, and yet are also under-lit from a task perspective. Monitors are best viewed in dimly lit settings because they emit light. Documents, however, reflect light and require light in order to be viewed. Therefore, single source lighting schemes are not appropriate for computer workstations. Age is a factor as well. As we get older, the corneal lens hardens and the process of accommodation becomes difficult. Focusing on near field objects becomes increasingly challenging. By the time an individual reaches the age of 61, they require at least 250% more contrast to view the same documents as they did in their 20s. To solve this dilemma, many organisations are employing a dual component lighting scheme by lowering ambient light levels and providing users with controllable task lights. This approach has been shown to reduce visual symptoms and reduce energy requirements up to 40%.

Widespread benefits

Challenging your organisation to design high performance work environments will not only improve worker comfort and reduce costs but will also preserve the original design vision of the space. Enhancing the human experience will quickly differentiate your firm from the competition and result in higher levels of employee retention.


For further information, visit www.humanscale.com

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