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While ergonomically designed office equipment such as seating and keyboards can help reduce employee injuries and physical complaints, a strong training program is essential to optimizing the effects of an ergonomics program.
This opinion is shared by two of the primary researchers in a recent study of 356 State of New Jersey office workers. The workers, who were provided with negative-slope keyboards with upper mouse trays and ergonomic chairs, showed an overall reduction in the prevalence of musculoskeletal symptoms by an average of 40%. The results of the study were presented at the Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society 45th Annual Meeting.
"You really can’t have one without the other," asserts Alan Hedge, PhD, a professor of ergonomics at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. "Yes, you will get some benefit from the product, but without training the benefits won’t persist. It’s like getting a new software program without looking at the manual; you’ll only get a fraction of the benefit."
Mary Rudakewych, MS, health and safety manager for the State of New Jersey department of personnel, agrees wholeheartedly. "You can give employees equipment without training and not receive the full benefits of the retrofit," she asserts. "If you combine the two, that’s when you really get to see the results."
By simply giving employees ergonomically correct equipment without training, one assumes many things that are probably not true, says Rudakewych. "You can’t assume employees know what postures are best for them simply because they’ve got new equipment," she notes. "They will still continue to do wrong things." In addition, she insists, the training must be provided by knowledgeable professionals. "You can’t train the trainer or put the information out on computer modules," she explains.
In this program, training was conducted with 30-40 employees at a time in a classroom setting. An ergonomist spoke with the workers about the biophysiological causes of injuries. Rudakewych was the other instructor. "The overall training program included a piece about physiology, demonstration of the new equipment and how it relates to good and bad posture," she adds. "We showed the employees how you can use good equipment either badly or properly, and how to tell the difference. That’s why the effects were so positive; it was a combination of the quality of training and the quality of the products as well."
The equipment was chosen because earlier research had indicated this type of product can help reduce injuries, notes Hedge. "The negative-slope keyboard with the upper mouse platform has been tested in various guises for over decade," notes Hedge. He explains that with this device the keyboard tray tilts downward instead of upward. The mouse sits to the right of the keyboard on an adjustable platform, so the worker can pull it over any number of keys. "This way, you don’t have to reach across the body," Hedge explains. "This works better for your wrist position, and also helps the elbows, shoulders, neck and back."
This is borne out by some of the specific effects of the ergonomics intervention of symptoms. The following areas showed the greatest impact:
Still, says Hedge, there was a value-added element provided by the training. "Clearly, the equipment would have had some effect even without the training," he concedes. "And I would say that the products without training are of more value than the training without products. Training without technology gives you at best a 10% improvement. Technology without training would give you about a 25%-50% improvement. Put the two together, and you really have a great package."
Hedge notes the study offers other take-home messages for occupational health professionals. "One of the things that was interesting to us but was not included in the paper concerned visits to the physician for physical problems," he says. "What seemed to emerge from that was the fact that a lot of times people will go to the doctor for symptoms without realizing those symptoms are related to the workplace. The doctor will treat the symptoms without knowing they are work-related. So, for example, they may see a doctor for back pain, get an X-ray or MRI, and be referred to a therapist, an orthopod, or a chiropractor. If the real source of the problem is sitting hunched over a computer for six to seven hours a day, they won’t see any benefits from therapy unless they change what they do at work. Some of our participants were followed up with a year later and we found their ongoing therapy had now become effective."
Finally, says Hedge, occupational health professionals should not wait until there are a significant number of symptoms and injuries before instituting an ergonomics program. "Ergonomics is really a preventive approach," he insists. "If you are a smoker and wait until you have lung cancer, it’s too late. Ergonomics does not apply just to people who are injured."
[For more information, contact:
• Mary Rudakewych, MS, Health & Safety Manager, Department of Personnel, State of New Jersey, P.O. Box 313, 44 S. Clinton Ave., Trenton, NJ 08625. Telephone: (609) 633-8010. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Alan Hedge, PhD, Professor of Ergonomics, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY. Telephone: (607) 255-1957. Web site: ergo.human.cornell.edu.]