Watch Out for Those Who Call Themselves Ergonomists but Really Aren’t

George Bush, running against Ronald Reagan for the Republican presidential nomination several years ago, coined the phrase “voodoo economics” to describe Reagan’s economic plan. It might sound good, but you won’t get much farther than all the hocus pocus. Bush, who would become Reagan’s vice president, now must wish he had never used the phrase. Presently our industry has a sound-alike phrase that will endure.

It’s “voodoo ergonomics, and it does not go much beyond the hocus pocus either. Voodoo ergonomics is a smokescreen of unsuccessful products and advice offered to companies with real problems in their workplaces—especially in the white collar office environments. When companies apply this ergonomic voodoo, their workers may actually be worse off than they were before.

Quick Solutions?

We most often see voodoo ergonomics in the white-collar world of computer-related workstations where physical movement and causal relationships to biomechanical damage is more subtle than in manufacturing or production settings. This involves workstations for customer service representatives, stockbrokers, CPAs writers/journalists, engineers/Computer-Aided Design operators and attorneys. The solutions to problems caused by movements and postures in these areas are often elusive.

What better target for practitioners of voodoo ergonomics with their quick-and-easy solutions and promises of long-lasting workplace bliss?

Here’s the scenario:

“My workers have painful wrists and shoulders. They can’t keyboard. They can’t mouse. They can’t use the computer at all. Productivity and performance is down, and backlogs are growing,” the executive says to the voodoo ergonomist. “What you need is wrist rests,” says the voodoo ergonomist (a.k.a. salesman), “to take care of all your problems”. “And some of them have sore backs that really encumber their ability to concentrate.” “We’ve got a special on back cushions,” says the pitchman. “Just blow ’em up and set ’em in the chairs. Backs are as good as new”.

So the office is loaded with wrist rests and back cushions. However, most of the workers still have the same problems, and they are probably getting worse. Many legitimate manufacturers/suppliers provide wrists rests and back cushions that address work-related stressors. Most manufacturers do not profess to cure all problems. The truth is that ergonomics is not limited to just simple solutions such as wrist rests and back cushions. It is a professional-level science dealing with the specific anatomical relationship between an individual human body and the work tasks performed.

Easy and general solutions usually don’t work because no two fingers, arms or legs are the same sizes, and everyone has different anatomical capabilities. Symptoms that seem similar may have any of a variety of causes for different people. Additionally, work tasks are rarely performed in the same way.

Take the worker whose hands become numb. It may be thoracic outlet syndrome which can happen when a chair’s armrests are too high and get in the way. This either causes the shoulders to be raised and “hunched” or creates a nasty angle between the arm and shoulders.

It might be lack of back support or a keyboard that forces the wrists so close together that the arms are bumping into the side of the body. Perhaps the hands are resting on the flat of the palm, and the fingers are elevated to hit the keys on a slanted keyboard. These conditions, which often place the hands and wrists in a damaging angle, impact the median nerve in the wrist. The result can be pain, numbness, tingling or stiffness prevalent in many computer users.

A myriad of problems can be the source of employee injury. Just a few of them may be correctable with wrist rests. Only appropriate analysis of the worker and the work tasks will identify the problems and solve them.

Preventative Medicine

Voodoo ergonomists do not just claim to solve problems, They also practice preventive medicine. Expensive “ergonomic” chairs, in fact, are something of a fad in the office decoration business these days, with all of their (said to be) adjustable parts that can fit anybody like a stretch sock fits any foot.

One company recently spent tens of millions to build a new office building for about 500 employees, all of whom were promptly installed in top-of-the-line identical “ergonomic” chairs. The trouble is the chairs are not adjustable enough to fit all body types, nor are they applicable to all the work tasks performed. So that company’s employees continue to have neck aches, back pain, leg aches, wrist pain, problems of the arms and shoulders. The company also has 500 mediocre chairs, worth several hundred dollars each. The same money could have purchased real, functional ergonomic chairs from equipment suppliers who are aware of sound ergonomic principles.

More than half the workers at another client’s business had pending workers’ compensation claims because of those same mediocre “ergonomic” chairs. This client actually sent his employees to one of the nation’s largest office furniture suppliers and told them to find chairs that were comfortable for them. They tested the supplier’s chairs by sitting in them for about a half hour. It was like checking out a pair of ski boots in the store, pronouncing them comfortable, and then finding them excruciatingly painful on the slope. Back at the office, our chair testers were back in pain upon using the chairs at the workplace in ‘battle conditions.”

Arm and Arm

Of course, there are good ergonomic chairs and other ancillary products out there. Professional ergonomists use them in workstation design projects and analysis, recommend them to clients with great results and even sit in them. However, these good chairs and other good equipment, often are accompanied by something special: equipment suppliers who understand their product and the relevance and importance of ergonomics. They also have open lines of communication with ergonomists and very often work arm-in-arm with them in projects. Look for this when putting together a program addressing white-collar office issues.

Just be warned. Whenever someone tells you that they have “ergonomic” equipment, you should read between the lines and ask for a list of customers who use the equipment. Then call to see if the success stories are true. If you actually talk to the workers using the devices, you may find startling answers.

Identify Different Levels of Injury and Prioritize

How should injury management professionals get started addressing ergonomic issues? Firstly, address the problems of those in urgent need. The first tier of employees are in severe pain or have completely broken down and require surgery. This group of 5 to 10 percent of your total workforce is the group that makes the headlines, instigates lawsuits, has the most visible concern and needs attention now. Employees in this tier present the greatest challenge since they have by medical diagnosis already broken down to a severe degree. Historically, an ergonomist spends significant time performing the analysis, working with other injury management professionals and installing corrections to positively affect this first tier of workers.

Any changes to “first tier” workstations will have great benefit to those performing the same task who have not suffered to this degree. Both the data gathered and the solutions imparted can be used to address those in other tiers. It may not be possible to help specific individuals who are past threshold, but proper action can ensure others will not end up as badly damaged from the workstation.

Then you take on those with less severe problems who are also receiving medical care for their ailments (10-15 percent of the worker group). The object is to ensure that this does not move up to the next level. In fact, a good ergonomics program will make great strides in eliminating the top two tiers entirely.

After addressing the upper tiers where an urgent ergonomic action is needed, then focus on those who are just beginning to show signs of physical stress or problems and who are likely candidates to continue gradual deterioration—eventually developing really severe problems. These employees complain of the occasional numb hands or shoulder pain when vacuuming the home carpets or the fumbling with the morning toothbrush. In short, these workers are experiencing slow deterioration. The subtle, but very obvious, symptoms are announcing the onset of biomechanical injury such as carpal tunnel syndrome.

The general attitude seen at this tier is, “The problems are nothing to worry about. They usually clear up. It’s only part of the job. I’ll be okay.” If these employees stay at the workstation causing these symptoms without any ergonomic intervention, they will obviously get worse and move up to the next tier.

After tackling these imminent and high-priority problems, begin fine tuning the ergonomic environments of the (at least for the moment) healthy employees which are about the remaining 50 to 65 percent of the workforce. This tier is often made up of those either young or healthy. Also included are those who are new to the job, who have not yet developed any problems. They may never have had anything wrong with them and may never have. They may be lucky.

A program for this last tier ensures that adverse biomechanical symptoms from bad workstation ergonomics do not develop. You do not want any workers in this tier moving up to the next levels. That soaks up time, money and productivity. It also causes people pain.

Finally, and most importantly, stay away from voodoo ergonomists. Consult with professional ergonomists when implementing programs or solutions. The expert should be experienced in analyzing workstation problems and with designing, testing and evaluating solutions. The right expert also will help establish an ergonomics program that not only will improve employees’ health, but will increase their productivity and morale. Ultimately the program will improve the bottom line measured in hard dollars.