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Adjustable Height Desks – Ergonomics and Wellness

Jun 17, 2019

Guest blog by David Bernardi, Ergonomic Consultant, President of Summit Ergonomics

Part one of a three part series.

Ergonomic programs and/or medical accommodation requests are typically managed and fulfilled by EHS or the Facilities departments, while employee wellness initiatives are typically administered by the HR/Benefits department. The American College of Occupational Health & Environmental Medicine (ACOEM) reported similar findings in their 2011 Guidance Statement and indicated “this lack of integration prevents optimal resource utilization and impedes efforts to maximize the overall health and productivity of the workforce.”

In 2011 the CDC’s National Institute of Occupation Safety and Health (NIOSH) launched the Total Worker Health program which “integrates workplace interventions that protect safety & health with activities that advance overall well-being of workers” with a stated goal to “improve worker creativity, innovation and productivity by creating work and work environments that are safe and health enhancing.” NIOSH’s position is “Employers who opt for wellness programs in the absence of adequate workplace safety & health protections are not applying the principles of TWH.”

According to the most-recent Workplace Health in America Survey conducted in 2017, 50% of all companies offer some form of worksite health promotion for their employees, and that number jumps to 92% for companies with a total of 500+ employees. These typically include physical activity, nutrition and stress reduction techniques. Conversely, according to ASSE, only 13% of companies have a formal program to proactively assess ergonomic risk in the workplace.

While recent studies have called into question the efficacy of wellness programming as it relates to reducing actual health care expenditures, ergonomic programs have demonstrated significant ROI as evidenced by reductions in incidence rates and severity levels of various Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSD).
Regardless of department affiliation, most are unaware of the safety hazard that exists in the standard office; the standard height, non-adjustable desk. The type of injury a poorly fitted desk causes occurs over time, is not typically recordable as an OSHA event and as a result tends to get overlooked in a business’ metrics. These injuries can still have a big financial impact on the bottom line based on incidence rates, lost productivity and direct medical costs, especially if the employee’s condition is compounded with a chronic condition such as obesity or diabetes.

A survey conducted by the American Osteopathic Association found that 66% of office workers had experienced musculoskeletal pain within the prior 6 months. Within that group, 70% reported sitting at their desks 5 or more hours per day. reports at least 50% of the working population suffers from at least one MSD and that number jumps to 75% for older workers.

The average height female is 5’4”. The average height male is 5’9”. Based on body size databases their predicted hand heights will be 23” and 27” above the ground respectively, when that user is in a “neutral” typing/mousing position (feet flat on the floor, shoulders relaxed, elbows at 90).

To use a standard fixed-height desk (typically set to 29.5”) approximately 90% of employees (most anyone under 5’11) must elevate his/her shoulders to raise and support their hands for computer use. Compound this with a forward-lean to better view the monitor which is typically positioned at the deepest point of the desk. This eventually leads to fatigue and recruitment of other postural muscles, ultimately leading to chronic muscle tension, overuse, inflammation, restricted blood flow, poorly oxygenated tissue, trigger points, i.e. the development of MSD.

Ergonomic fixes to accommodate the desk that is too high may include:

  • Raising the chair height accordingly, and providing a properly sized footrest,
  • Use of a keyboard tray, but most don’t like the bounce and/or restriction of leg room they create,
  • An overall lowering of the work surface,
  • An adjustable height work surface.

In ergonomics we preach “Your Next Posture is Your Best Posture” to stress the importance of movement and frequent postural transition. Not only does this minimize the risk of developing chronic muscle tension, but dynamic contraction of postural skeletal muscles (as when transitioning from sit to stand), releases beneficial enzymes into the bloodstream that bind to fat molecules and increase the presence of good cholesterol.

Some may have you believe that standing is a cure-all, but too much standing has been shown to be just as unhealthy as too much sitting. If one’s goal is to reduce the amount of sitting during their workday by let’s say 2 hours (120min), one would be better off standing 12 separate times for 10 minutes apiece throughout the day, rather than standing consecutively for 2 hours. Alternatively or additionally, depending on your point of view, one can also break up the day with short bouts of walking; to the restroom, to collaborate with a colleague, to fill up a water bottle, to the printer, to a centralized garbage bin, up/down the stairs etc. But any time spent away from one’s desk, could be construed as unproductive time depending on the employer, one’s job functions and pay grade.

One of easiest methods to integrate the benefits of both ergonomics and wellness is through the use of adjustable height desks. When deployed properly, they can provide proper ergonomic working heights for 98% of your employees in both sitting and standing, and they provide the frequent postural transition, while still maintaining the ability for the employee to remain productive.

In part two of this series, we’ll take a look at factors to consider when seeking an adjustable height workstation.

About the Author:  David Bernardi has an MS degree in Bioengineering from the University of Utah and is currently an ergonomic consultant and the president of Summit Ergonomics in Manchester NH.

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