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WORKPLACE : Proper Positioning : Employers and workers find that a few adjustments can make a workstation more comfortable.


One city of Ventura employee uses two reams of paper to prop up a computer terminal. Other workers have been known to rest their wrists on towels as they type on their computer keyboards.

Are these signs of scrimping and saving in a tough economy?

Not really. They are more signs of the computer age. They are ways by which employers and employees are creating ergonomically correct workstations. In other words, they are adjusting their desks, terminals, chairs, telephones, even pens and paper, to avoid putting unnecessary repetitive stress on their bodies.

Cumulative trauma disorders (CTD)--health problems primarily related to the arms and hands, but also to the back, neck and other parts of the body--are among the top health concerns of the 1990s.

About three years ago, Ventura chiropractor Francis Robinson contacted the city and offered to do an ergonomic evaluation of the workstations of city employees. Ultimately, 34 individual evaluations were done, and alterations were made.

"(One) of the things we changed was relocating the tools on the desk--the telephone, the copy stand--to an area that eliminated employees' stretching or doing something in an awkward manner," said Cathy Erickson, city payroll/office services supervisor. "We modified the height of the computer terminal itself and the location of the keyboard."

Robinson and chiropractor Roger Dennis are getting into the business of doing ergonomics evaluations at workplaces around the county. They have co-written an as-yet-unpublished book titled "Preventing Pain & Injury From Your Computer." On April 3, they will speak at Ventura College at an ergonomics seminar sponsored by the Ventura County Legal Secretaries Assn.

Ergonomics is defined by Webster's New World Dictionary as "the study of the problems of people in adjusting to their environment." In the United States, ergonomics first became an issue during World War II in regard to the aviation industry, according to Hal Hendrick, professor of human factors at USC and president of the International Ergonomics Assn.

Robinson said ergonomics was a concern in the meatpacking and auto industries several decades ago, but it wasn't until computers became common office tools that ergonomics hit the white-collar world. With an increase in computer use, more people were tied to their desks for longer periods of time, and the potential for repetitive stress problems increased. Statistics have shown that an employee working on a keyboard can do 10,000 keystrokes per hour.

Figures from the National Safety Council and the Health Care Financing Administration reflect an increase in reported cases of CTD problems in the office over the past five to 10 years.

In 1988, CTD cases represented 33% of all work injuries. In 1992, they were up to 50%. There is an average annual increase of 300% for new cases of carpal tunnel syndrome, a common form of CTD that affects the hands and wrists.

Because of these increases, Robinson and Dennis, among others, are looking to improve workplace conditions. They say preventive measures will cut down on employee discomfort and, for employers, save on workers' compensation costs and work time lost due to injury.

The National Safety Council and the Health Care Financing Administration report that businesses can reduce workers' compensation losses by 83% and days lost by 50% with a proper ergonomics program.

So what exactly are the ergonomics evaluators looking for?

Of primary concern is the relation of the chair to the keyboard and desk. "We have to get the individual into the proper seated position by adjusting the chair so the wrists are resting comfortably with the elbows at a 90-degree angle," Robinson said, "so all of the muscles, from the base of the skull down to the hands, are fairly relaxed."

Sometimes, after coordinating chair and terminal, the employee's feet aren't in the correct position. "We need to look at the thighs and feet. Proper seating dictates feet are flat on the floor, but the key is that thighs need to be parallel to the floor," said Kathy Roussin, ergonomics evaluator for the Ventura County Community College District.

If the worker is short and has to lean forward to reach the floor, there is too much pressure on the thighs, she said. If the person is tall and the thighs angle upward, there is too much weight on the spine. Boosting up the feet or the seat can help alleviate these problems.

After the chair is taken care of, the evaluator may look at the position of the computer. "First, is the keyboard directly in front of you? If you're using it off to the side, you are involving the back, shoulders and neck when you don't have to," Roussin said. "Second, where's the screen? Is it off to the side or directly in front?"

And is the monitor at the right height? Roussin said the top line of screen text should be at eye level, to avoid having to move the head up and down. "For most of our employees, we're not talking about tilting the head back one or two times a day," she said. "We're talking thousands, and that's repetitive."

Robinson and Roussin said they also check out glare on the computer screen, and location of telephones and other often-used items on the desk to make sure they are within easy reach. Robinson even added writing implements and carbonless forms to the checklist. A pen too wide for comfort can put unnecessary strain on the wrist and arm.

"I think there's definitely an increased awareness. Employees are pushed to do something about a problem much sooner than they used to be," said Wanda Bader, rehabilitation services director at Los Robles Medical Center in Thousand Oaks. "A lot of things are very simple to do, but people haven't thought of doing them."

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