Ergo Proctor Hoc: Lessons in Ergonomics

Laura Vandendorpe threw her passions as an editor of a startup Web company in Chicago into 10- and 12-hour days at her keyboard. Her breaks consisted mainly of catching up on emails, which still didn't offer relief to achy muscles.

The 26-year-old loved every minute, never dreaming the work habits that allowed her to be so productive would eventually prevent her from doing her job.

Yet what she considered inconsequential soreness and tingling turned into tendonitis of the wrist. Within a year she couldn't move her hands and was forced to switch to a job in sales and content development which required less typing.

She says the turn of events has been hard to stomach. "All I was doing was the day-to-day thing that I get paid to do, that I was trained to do and that I love to do, so to have that hurt you is very painful (emotionally)," she says.

According to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, an estimated 1.8 million employees each year — many of them professionals performing what appear to be benign, low-impact desk jobs — report musculoskeletal disorders caused by work spaces, tasks, or habits that aren't suited to their bodies' physical limitations.

"What we've learned in the last 20 years is that much of what we've designed for humans to work in and around did not take into consideration what they are really capable of doing...which sets them up for injury," says Eric Van Fleet, a professor of occupational safety and health at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich.

For example, a keyboard set up improperly may require the user to twist and bend the wrist, forcing the hand out of its neutral position (that is, the position requiring the least amount of effort). That causes irritation and strain to muscles, ligaments and tendons.

Ergo Proctor Hoc: Lessons in Ergonomics (<i>cont'd</i>)

While this wear and tear may only cause mild discomfort, stiffness or fatigue at first, problems can build over time — especially if someone spends six to eight hours a day repeating the same task or holding the same awkward positions.

"Most musculoskeletal disorders are considered cumulative trauma disorders," says Van Fleet. "One bad move, like bending from the waist, which puts a strain on the lower back doesn't do it, but one gets you closer, and 1,000 might get you there."

In addition to medical costs and time from work if problems become severe, "people's productivity starts to drop off, they're much more irritable, and it's much harder to concentrate on your job when your body's stiff and achy," says Charles Kopin, ergonomic specialist for Industrial Health Care in Waterbury, Conn.

Among the most common repetitive strain disorders experienced in the workplace are lower back strain, tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome, says Dr. Ronald Leopold, medical director at MetLife Disability in Atlanta. Visual fatigue and headaches also may occur if workstations are set up improperly.

The good news is that by understanding the basic principles of ergonomics, which is the science of fitting workplace conditions and job demands to the specific dimensions and capabilities of employees, these problems can be dramatically reduced.