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Ergonomics—a lifestyle of movements

Friday, May 29, 2015
Dirt Under the Nails

Ergonomics…what a strange name! It sounds like some sort of Transformer robot that belongs in a sci-fi movie. Quite the contrary, it has everything to do with humans and how we move on a daily basis. The typical definition of ergonomics is the science of fitting the job to the worker and the worker to the job in an effort to reduce injury. It looks at how we do our job and how our job and workspace are designed. The word “ergonomics” comes from the Greek word “ergon” meaning “work.”

However, ergonomics not only relates to our work, but infiltrates every aspect of our lives. Ergonomic injury can refer to sudden trauma, as can be experienced from a fall, a chemical exposure or fire. It also refers to what is known as cumulative trauma injury (CTI) or repetitive strain injury (RSI) and can affect many aspects of our body. A CTI or RSI results from the summation of forces of repetitive low load activities over a period of time. 

For example, a bank employee who rests her wrists on the hard surface of the desk to type may develop carpal tunnel syndrome if this activity is done many hours a day, five days a week over a long period of time.

While resting her wrists on the desk is not a painful event, in and of itself, the prolonged compression experienced by the wrist over a period of time, even though it is not initially painful, can lead to development of the tingling and weakness in the hands, associated with carpal tunnel syndrome.

Gel wrist keyboard and mouse rests are recommended to avoid this compression from the hard surface of the desk. This is an example of fitting the job to the worker, where the workspace is modified to decrease the risk of injury. But ergonomics is a two-way street, and the employee must use the equipment provided properly.

When we go onto job sites or into offices, we frequently see equipment being used incorrectly by the worker, be it because the employee does not know how to use the gadgets, or he/she falls into bad habits and needs to be reminded to use them properly. A prime example is the typical ergonomic chair. Many offices have fabulous chairs with tons of adjustable features, yet we often see employees leaning forward in their chairs, forgetting to use their lumbar support, or just in bad posture because they do not know how to adjust their chairs for their needs. 

Our job as ergonomic evaluators at Total Rehab also includes education on the use of the equipment, which often improves the comfort and happiness of the employee.

While a lot of ergonomics centres around office workers and adjusting their workstations to suit their needs, there are some jobs where workspaces cannot be adjusted. Jobs that involve working in tight spaces present this unique challenge, and do not allow for the application of rules like getting close to the work, avoidance of reaching for prolonged periods, and ensuring that there is a lot of space in which to work. 

Plumbers, electricians, oil and gas platform workers, and mechanics are among some of the persons faced with such challenges. Ergonomic suggestions to decrease injury risk would include things like job rotation and freedom to take frequent breaks.

These jobs, in addition to those of farmers and construction workers also require repetitive lifting of fairly heavy objects. There are equations used in the ergonomics world that determine the safe weight that should be lifted by the employee depending on the frequency of the lifting to be done.

In addition, lifting aids such as pulleys and trolleys to assist with carrying loads are very useful pieces of equipment that can help reduce the risk of injury from lifting and carrying. Not only are there ergonomic considerations in lifting, but in shovelling, handling tools and packaging among other activities. 

However, it is also important that the employees be responsible for themselves as well, practice proper body mechanics and maintain a healthy and active lifestyle in order to further reduce the risk of injury.

Ergonomics does not only refer to our jobs. It infiltrates into everything we do in our lives…how we rise from sitting, how we sit when we watch television, how we lean over the sink to brush our teeth or wash the dishes, how we pull the hose in the garden, how we get into and out of our cars, how we lift weights in the gym. Remember, CTI’s sneak up on us. Good ergonomics should be a habit and a lifestyle. All it takes is one bad lift or pull or bend, and we, together with our bank accounts, are off to a physician’s office!

Carla Rauseo, DPT, CSCS, ATRIC is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and a Certified Aquatic Therapy Rehabilitation Instructor at Total Rehabilitation Centre in San Juan.


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