By Gwen Dawkins
Workspace ergonomics involves a lot more than sitting up straight and keeping your shoulders back. Passionate about the ‘human’ side of work efficiency, Ergonomist Lori Romero-Ellingson, analyzes, educates and advocates for ideal workspace setups to protect people’s posture, comfort and long-term health.
What’s the big deal with ergonomics?
It’s like anything that has to do with taking care of your body, just like eating right and exercising. Most of us are working eight or more hours a day. And, for many, that means hovering over a computer. If you move incorrectly, repetitively, or over a long period, you’re eventually going to get hurt.
If you have an ergonomic workstation at your job, is it still essential to have one at home?
Yes. Since Covid, we’re all working from home now anyway, so it’s vital to set up a proper workstation. But as people begin to go back into the office, it’s still a consideration. In an office, you’re supplied with a desk and chair –– and a whole lot of distractions. People tend to take more breaks at work than they do at home offices. For example, you get called into meetings, walk and talk with coworkers, and maybe work out in the corporate gym. However, at home, people tend to work for longer stretches with fewer breaks or opportunities to break up prolonged computer work.
Since Shelter-In-Place caught many of us by surprise, and there’s an indefinite timeframe for going back to an office building, many people use their kitchen tables and chairs with their laptops. That’s about the worst position you can put yourself in. [During our Zoom interview in fact, Lori pointed out that I was holding my shoulders up with my wrists too high. She said I was creating tension and stress in my neck and shoulders –– and that I may not even realize it. And that it’s likely that I’m holding my body that way throughout the day.]
The proper set-up is so important
OK, busted. I feel the tension. What do I do about it?
Setting yourself up correctly at home is vital. And simply going out and buying yourself a desk isn’t going to solve the problem because they’re all too high. Back in the day, desks were designed for writing. For the most part, desks haven’t evolved much even though we now use desktop computers with keyboards or laptops. Ideally, the surface for your keyboard and mouse should only be about an inch above your lap or about belly button high. That way, your shoulders will stay down and relaxed; and you’re eliminating awkward positions and undue strain.
You really want your body to remain neutral. That is, an evenly supported position with gravity keeping your shoulders down and your spine balanced over your hips, just like when standing. While seated, your hips should be slightly higher than your knees and feet securely planted on the floor. That way, your center of gravity remains in your core with two firm contact points (your feet and your bum). If your desk is too high, you’ll hunch forward and strain your lower back. The goal is to keep your whole back supported, so the weight is evenly distributed throughout your back.
Once you establish good chair support, you only want to use your forearms to keep neutral. I tell people to work like a T-Rex. People don’t realize how vital their computer mouse is. It needs to fit your hand and be positioned so the elbow stays close to your body. The bicep does all the work while the wrist stays free from movement. A licensed and certified ergonomist can help get the right proportions and positioning for every unique body. And it matters because, at the end of the day, you’ll feel more relaxed if you set up your workstation correctly.
What if you don’t hurt? Does that mean you don’t need to worry about ergonomics?
No. It may not hurt today, but it could tomorrow or in a month or a year. Fatigue, strain and tension can lead to pain, even if it doesn’t happen right away. Some people question why they suddenly have tingling fingers or wrist pain when they’ve been ‘working this way for years.’ For some, awkward posturing causes immediate pain. For others, it’s the build-up of constant, repetitive motion that leads to injuries and discomfort. And, as we age, we’re more affected by this because, frankly, body parts start to wear down.
It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution
Can you share some ergonomic tips?
First, understand that healthy positioning is not one-size-fits-all. And terms like “ergonomic keyboard” and other generalities are misnomers. I fit the workspace to the individual, but everyone should strive to work like a tree in the breeze: grounded, semi-straight and steady, but allowing for continual movement. Here are a few considerations:
- If using a kitchen/dining room wooden chair, I recommend placing a blanket folded into thirds or fourths, depending on height, for soft cushion support. A pillow can get wobbly and fall off easily. It will lose its air and shrink, so a blanket usually works better. Ensure the chair has a tall, upright backrest and add a pillowcase over the back for increased comfort and support.
- Once you’ve raised the support in your seat, you may also need to raise your feet. Having solid support underfoot means you won’t place undue pressure on your back. Place a scale or large book on the floor to set feet on a solid surface.
- For most people, I recommend a short keyboard without a 10-key instead of a standard keyboard, but this all depends on your size. If you need a 10-key, add it separately. If you’re petite and using a 24” wide “ergonomic” keyboard, the mouse will be too far out from your body. When choosing a keyboard, your shoulder width should be your guide. If the keyboard forces you to go wider than your shoulders when mousing, it’s too big.
- Get a separate keyboard and mouse for better positioning and use your laptop as a screen only. This will prevent you from looking down all of the time, placing undue pressure on the back of your neck.
- Monitors should be situated so that you can scan your whole monitor without moving your head. Only your eyes should be moving up and down, keeping your head neutral and balanced over your neck and chin parallel to the floor.
Where to find help
What do you do that people can’t do on their own?
Ergonomics is the science of stress and strain on the body with work-related tasks. There’s no formula because everybody is different in proportions and mechanics. What type of work you do matters as well; spreadsheets, mapping, graphing, writing, and word processing require different equipment and settings. And if you have any disabilities that can affect your body mechanics as well. I adjust people’s environments to fit their bodies for injury prevention and the most comfortable positioning. When you think about it, even slight discomfort causes both physical and mental strain. I help people eliminate undue stress.
Where can people turn to find a certified ergonomic pro in their area?
The Board of Certified Professional Ergonomics offers a directory of qualified professionals. One of the good things that have come out of Covid is our ability to work from home and conference via Zoom or other similar programs. It’s actually changed my whole business. Ergonomists, like myself, can offer assessments and help people over Zoom wherever they may be located.
Lori Romero-Ellingson is an OSHA and Board-Certified Associate Ergonomist Professional, AEP and Industrial Ergonomic Evaluator, CIEE, specializing in setting and enforcing comprehensive workplace health safety standards. Currently completing her M.B.A. in organizational leadership, Lori aims to bring more ergonomic safety and injury prevention managerial programs strategically into large-scale corporations.