Even though OSHA's ergonomics standard is no longer law, a few guidelines can avert a lot of pain and preserve profits.
Early this year, Cee Jimeno was a very popular woman. The occupation safety and health coordinator for HMSA was receiving a flood of phone calls from clients and industry groups shortly after former President Clinton signed into law the Office of Safety & Health Administration’s controversial ergonomics rules on Jan. 16.
On March 20th, newly elected President George W. Bush signed a joint resolution of Congress disapproving the standard and Jimeno’s phone abruptly stopped ringing. The peace and quiet have been welcomed but worrisome at the same time. The absence of an ergonomics standard doesn’t mean that a serious problem doesn’t exist. While the cost of complying with the new standard could have been crippling (A study by the Employment Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, claimed that compliance cost for the new standard would range as high as $91.4 billion) the current cost of ergonomic-related injuries is similarly disabling. (The National Academy of Sciences estimates that musculoskeletal disorders, things like carpal-tunnel syndrome, tendonitis and lower back pain, cost the nation $45 billion to $54 billion in compensation, lost wages and lower productivity each year.)
“I don’t think that the injury statistics can be disputed,” says Jimeno, who is responsible for the internal safety of HMSA and its subsidiary companies’ employees, and provides safety service to HMSA’s employer groups. “And the thing about these types of injuries is that not only are they frequent but they are severe.”
Law or not, as far as office ergonomics are concerned, Jimeno says that workers and managers can follow a few simple common-sense rules to ensure a safe working environment. And if your office is reasonably equipped, it may come at a minimal cost.
• Sit all the way back into your chair with your feet flat on the floor. Adjust the chair even with or slightly lower than your hips.
• Your elbows should be bent at a 90 degree angle with wrists flat, fingers curled and hands relaxed.
• The proper viewing distance from the computer screen is 20 to 30 inches. A good way to check is to extend out an arm and touch the screen with your fingertips. Keep the top of the computer screen just at or below eye level.
• If you are sitting too close to the screen, get a height-adjusted keyboard drawer so you can increase the distance.
The most important single piece of equipment to keep you ergonomically correct is a proper chair. When looking for a new one or analyzing your present one, look for:
• The ability to adjust the height as well as the back rest.
• Five-star (or five-legged) pedestal, which provides a good base.
• A waterfall edge, where the seat pan curves downward.
• Adequate lumbar support.
• Comfortable padded seat.
A good basic chair with these features is available from $200-$300. Premium chairs can run to near $1,000 and have such features as adjustable seat pans and lumbar support, tilt back functions as well as a whole host of other options.
The best set-up in the world won’t do you any good if you are working improperly. Always try to:
• Every 20 or 30 minutes find some good excuse to stand up. Standing up takes the strain off of your back and is one of the best things you can do for your body.
• Take microbreaks every hour. This doesn’t mean going out for coffee or a smoke. Just spin your chair around and look out the window for a few seconds, something to get your hands off the keyboard and your eyes off the screen.
• Avoid prolonged tasks. Conduct other jobs intermittently throughout your workday to break up long periods of sitting and computer use. Listen to your body. Many people wait ‘till they feel pain before stopping and going on to another task.
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