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Enhancing Physical Wellness:

Practical Ergonomic Principles (HR Future Magazine)

Practical Ergonomic PrinciplesErgonomics is the study of the interface between the individual and his or her immediate environment, and includes the implementation of healthy workplace practices, postures and habits to enhance wellness and prevent injuries, musculo-skeletal problems and other health concerns.

The World Health Organisation and the International Labour Organisation are working together with the International Ergonomics Association to increase awareness of the importance of applying ergonomic principles in the workplace.

Cost to companies of not implementing theseminimal cost ergonomic adaptations include: increased absenteeism, presenteeism (employees being at work, but less productive), injuries, occupational diseases, higher medical costs and claimsfrom medical aids, increased errors,below standard work quality, increased turnover of skilled employees, reduced productivity, reduced capability to deal with emergencies and client demands. Also refer to the chapter on workplace wellness.

Simple ergonomic changes include minimising glare from the computer screen, moving furniture around, adjusting chair and work station height, correct posture education, stretching exercises and correct breathing at your desk, and using plantsfor greenery and mini break focuses.

Practical tools and techniques to manage ergonomic stress

Computer monitor

The monitor should be as far away as possible from your eyes for you to still be able to read it clearly, placed right on top of the work surface. The correct height of the monitor, is where it’s most comfortable for you. Eye height is usually recommended, but some people find it more comfortable lower or higher, looking slightly up or down. For some, this puts less strain on the eyes and neck muscles.


The usual prescription for the upper and lower legs being perpendicular to each other – forming a 90o angle, is fine, as long as you move your legs very often. They should not stay fixed at 90for too long. It is important that the chair should be low enough for the feet always to rest on the floor, even if extended. If the keyboard height can’t be adjusted to elbow height or lower, put your feet on a footrest. Even then, try to move your feet frequently.

Sitting posture

The usual way recommended suggests an upright position, hips at 90to the upper body. Some research supports the idea of a wider hip angle of up to 130o. This allows a better alignment of the vertebrae in the lower spine, reducing pressure on the intervertebral discs. When reclining slightly, the lower back muscles work less and the spine carries less weight because the body weight is supported by the chair’s backrest. The best posture, is posture change! People who stand or sit all day have back problems, as disc spaces lose fluid over the course of the day because of the weight they carry.

Rest breaks

Single task work such as typing, requires 30 second rest breaks every 10-15 minutes, in addition to the usually recommended 15 minute breaks every 2 hours.

Keyboard position

The keyboard should be in front of you. The important point is to have your forearms supported, the wrists straight and the elbows resting on something soft and rounded. The work surface should be higher than your elbow height. Keyboard height can be the same as elbow height, with forearms straight, or slightly lower, with forearms lower than elbow height. You should choose the position most comfortable to you. The keyboard angle should be on the same plane as the forearm. A low keyboard should be slanted back. You would still be able to see the keys clearly. If the work surface is too high, you may place the keyboard on your lap.

Place the mouse next to the keyboard.

Wrist rests may be harmful if they’re too thick, too thin, too hard or with sharp edges. The carpal tunnel is right underneath the wrist and palm of the hand and shouldn’t be put under more pressure.

Repetitive strain injury (RSI)

RSI occurs from repeated physical movements with a limited range, damaging tendons, nerves, muscles and other soft tissue. RSI affects typists, meatpackers, musicians, anybody who does work where they do the same tasks constantly. Computer use and flat, light touch keyboards that allow for high speed typing have given rise to an epidemic of hand, arms and shoulder injuries. The mouse and other pointing devices also contribute to the problem. Another name for this is cumulative trauma disorder. Typing technique, unnatural body positions with strain on tendons and nerves in the hands, wrists, arms, shoulders and neck, lack of exercise, adequate rest breaks and excessive force are all contributable factors. The injuries associated with this, are carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, bursitis, tenosynovitis, De Quervain’s syndrome, thoracic outlet syndrome, trigger finger, myofacial pain syndrome and cubital tunnel syndrome. All of these are serious conditions that can cause a lot of pain and even permanent disability.

The symptoms of RSI

· Pain in the upper back, shoulders, or neck associated with using the computer. Tightness, discomfort, stiffness, soreness, burning in the hands, wrists, fingers, forearms, or elbows

  • Clumsiness or loss of strength and coordination in the hands Tingling, coldness, numbness in the hands
  • Feeling a need to massage your hands, wrists, and arms
  • Pain that wakes you at night

How to prevent RSI

  • Correct typing, posture, keyboard and monitor height as described above
  • Relax, move and stretch frequently – even the best posture will create problems if held in one position for long periods. Do the neck, shoulder, arms, wrist and hand exercises described in part 3.
  • Increase font sizes. Tiny fonts strain your eyes and you lean or hunch forward to read, putting strain on your back, nerves and blood vessels.
  • Use shades of gray for text documents, they’re easier on the eyes.
  • Use a light touch on the keyboard, don’t pound the keys!
  • The most important tool of prevention is taking regular breaks and do the correct exercises like the desktop yoga described in part 3 of this book.
  • Don’t grip the mouse hard, hold it lightly.
  • Keep arms and hands warm to prevent injuries to cold muscles and tendons. This is a very real problem in over air-conditioned offices.
  • Don’t stick the phone between your ear and shoulders while typing. It puts a lot of strain on your neck, shoulders and arms.
  • Consider other activities that may contribute to RTI, such as sport, hobbies like needlework, carrying children, etc.
  • Do the tired eye maneuvers described above.
  • Listen to your body! Pain is not to be constantly killed by anti-inflammmatories – it’s there to warn you that your body’s in trouble. Yoga, t’ai chi, dancing and stretching are all things you can do to relieve the pain of overstrained nerves, tendons and muscles.
  • Be aware that your children are also at risk. They shouldn’t spend too many hours in front of a computer. Let them take the same precautions described here.

Ways to reduce environmental stress

Your physical environment is very important for your day to day stress at work and at home. Here are a few ways to reduce this stress:

  • Do as many activities as possible in natural light to enhance your mood and help your biological body clock to maintain its function. If you can, try working next to a window, allowing as much light as possible to reach your working space. Artificial light is a subtle, but very real stress trigger. Take short mini breaks outside for fresh air and some healing sunlight.
  • Ensure sufficient ventilation and air filtering in areas where you spend lots of time. Air humidity should be kept to a level that’s comfortable for you. Too dry or humid air can be uncomfortable and even produce physical symptoms. Dehumidifiers can help damp rooms feel more comfortable. Dry rooms often need a few plants to provide a bit of moisture. Aromatherapy oils can be circulated through air condition ducts to relax and refresh (lavender, sweet orange and neroli) or increase energy levels (peppermint).
  • Clean your work space, office, upholstery and carpeting regularly. Chemicals found in these contribute to poor air quality. Coughing, burning throat and itchy skin can be due to chemicals from photocopy machines and other office equipment. Air cleaning systems will take care of the problem. Open all windows and doors when you get home.
  • Tobacco toxins are chronic environmental stress triggers to everybody exposed to it. It may lead to allergies, respiratory and cardiovascular problems.
  • Arrange your office furniture to include enough space for moving around, to work without distraction and to be able relax. Remove unnecessary furniture and clutter from your space. Clutter drains your energy and lowers your creativity.
  • Colour has an extremely important effect on your mood and energy levels. High energy shades of red, burgundy, burnt orange and ochre yellow allow for activity and concentration. Hues of blue, turquoise, lilac and green work well for chill rooms, reception and rest areas. These colours allow for feelings of calm, peace, creativity and relaxation.
  • Reduce noise levels as much as possible. We are assaulted by noise in the urban environment. We’re somewhat aware of air, water and earth pollution, but pay little attention to sound pollution. The maximum intensity the human ear can withstand without loss of hearing, is 75 decibels. We’re continuously exposed to an ongoing noise level of far more than 80 decibels. High noise levels lead to an increase in blood pressure and learning disabilities in children. People subjected to repeated, loud noises have higher levels of certain medical and psychological problems. New studies have shown that even low-level noise, such as that found in many open offices, can increase stress and decrease employee motivation. Low level background noise is an important stressor that has serious effects on our mood and energy levels.
  • Design your computer work area according to ergonomic principles, to prevent RSI – refer to previous section for detail.
  • Have your own private space at work and at home for emotional and mental retreats. If space is limited, arrange furniture, plants, or add room dividers to provide a sense of privacy. Use the space to reflect, think and relax.

Limiting low level office noise

The best is of course a relaxing and quiet work environment, but for most of us that’s an impossibility.

  • Try to have at least some noise free rooms or areas for jobs that require concentration.
  • Control additional noise from radio’s, CD players and telephone conversations
  • Find out if noise reducing items like carpets, curtains or partitioning can’t be installed.
  • Make your work space welcoming and relaxing with plants, personal decorations, pictures and photographs
  • Take noise breaks by using ear plugs, doing a quiet breath meditation or going for a walk in a quiet park
  • Optimal nutrition, regular exercise and proper sleep habits, increase your resistance to noise induced stress.

Looking after your physical health, by excluding, balancing or limiting environmental stress, will allow you to cope with those everyday stresses life continuously put in our paths to help us grow and develop as soulful human beings. Taking care of physical factors, enable you to notice the control you do have to a large extent on how you react to the world around you. It helps you take self-responsibility for maintaining health and wellness. More information available in my book ‘Stress Solutions’, Tafelberg Publishers.


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