What do lawyers, public servants and IT service desk personnel have in common? Answer: they all work in office spaces. The majority of their day is spent seated in front of a computer, possibly taking lunch at their desks or even doing overtime. It is a long day in a chair. Yet, regardless of what profession they are in each person can only perform to their highest capacity when good office ergonomics are in play.
It is a common misunderstanding that office ergonomics is purely about the chair workers use. Good ergonomics is so much more than that. According the oxford dictionary ergonomics is “the study of people’s efficiency in their working environment.” The environment extends out from that chair, encompassing everything influencing the space including light, noise, distance, the other people sharing the area and the systems imposed on that environment.
The International Ergonomics Association breaks down ergonomics into three domains: physical, cognitive and organisational. Good physical ergonomics monitor repetitive movements, like overusing a mouse, or the layout of items on a desk. For example, the simple act of decreasing the reach distance to the phone when someone is required to make 5 phone calls an hour will reduce the chance they’ll become hurt.
General health and safety matters fall under physical ergonomics, from keeping pathways clear of boxes that cause trips, or preventing slippery floors in designated wet areas. When physical ergonomics are not accounted for, musculoskeletal injuries and safety incidents endanger workers. This is why a supportive chair, that is the perfect height for the individual sitting in it is so important. If a chair is too low to the floor and a worker is craning their neck upwards to see the screen and stretching their arms out to reach the keyboard they will be feeling so sore and tired that concentration will become difficult in a few minutes or hours, even before strains risks are appreciated.
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A workplace always needs a robust health and safety department to make sure the physical working environment is fit for purpose. A lot of physical ergonomics is common sense but the amount of workplace injuries we see each year tells us that the stringent workplace laws enforced by WorkSafe are truly needed. So, if you are finding it difficult to see a spreadsheet because sunlight is glaring through the window behind you – raise it with your local safety rep. And, if your office offers workstation ergonomic assessments, take them up on the offer. Ergonomists will set up your workspace specifically for you and tell you all the tips and tricks to keep you safer and healthier every day of your working life.
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The International Ergonomics Association define cognitive ergonomics as “concerned with mental processes, such as perception, memory, reasoning, and motor response.” A good example is web design. If you are looking on a retailer website for a store location and can’t find it within a reasonable amount of time – the problem lies with the design of the website; the website failed to create a design that worked for a real user. The same principle applies at work. If operating systems don’t make sense, staff may be unable or unwilling to follow the desired workflow. To see how much cognitive ergonomics matters, read the fascinating story showing how poor work design resulted in a major failure at Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in the United States.
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The third domain is organisational ergonomics. This is an area workplaces often overlook. Organsational ergonomics includes resourcing – having enough trained personnel to cover the workload. It includes building a cooperative community for individuals to feel safe with their team – enough to share their best ideas. A good workplace will set up the organisational system to help their employees perform at their best. Barriers to performance are evidenced in downturns in work quality or poor communication that can massive flow on effects on morale, turnover and bottom line results.
Ergonomics may start with having a supportive chair, but a worker needs a supportive team and good environment to perform at their optimum level.