The Ergonomic Workplace Revolution

Donna Scott has been retired for a few years now, but she’s still proud to say she was the first female meat cutter in Washington State. She spent 30 years in the trade, handling huge slabs of beef and whole chickens, trimming off the fat and cutting them up to be packaged and sold at Mayfair Market in Yakima. She says it was a great career, until the pain started. “After about 20 years I noticed what was happening was my hands were getting numb and they would go to sleep and at night they would ache.”

She thinks the repetitive motions of her job caused the problem. It got worse as the years went on, but she didn’t complain. “There was nobody to take your place, and they needed you there, so I just stayed with it and worked through it.” At home she would use a heating pad, and when her wrists and hands swelled she’d ice them. Eventually it got so bad she couldn’t even push a vacuum cleaner around the house.

At the time, Donna didn’t realize she had carpal tunnel syndrome or CTS. It affects up to five million U.S. workers every year, according to the National Institutes of Health. After Donna retired, a doctor finally diagnosed it, and she had surgery on both wrists.

If you do anything long enough, it can wear your body down. And that’s especially true at work, where people spend 2,080 hours a year, often performing the same motions. Whether it’s typing, swiping groceries across a sensor, cutting meat, or driving a tractor bouncing across a field — tasks you do repeatedly can cause or worsen musculoskeletal injuries including CTS, sciatica, and back, neck or knee pain.

But there’s a revolution sweeping workplaces across the nation. It’s called ergonomics and it’s the science of designing equipment that workers can use easily and safely. A growing number of businesses are getting on board, as they realize proper techniques and tools can reduce health care costs, keep workers happy, and decrease turnover.

Repetitive strain injuries like CTS have increased along with the use of computers at work. By 2013, CTS was the most expensive upper-extremity musculoskeletal disorder in the U.S., costing more than $2 billion a year for treatment and surgery. Here in Washington state, the Department of Labor and Industries estimates that the annual incidence in the general population is one in every 1,000 people.

A growing number of workers are turning to ergonomic keyboards, which can help relieve CTS symptoms. They’re raised a few inches off the desktop, and the keyboard is split and angled out to give a more natural hand and wrist position. The worldwide market for ergonomic keyboards was valued at $493 million in 2014 and is expected to grow by 10 percent a year over the next decade.

Another ergonomic trend is the standing desk. You may have seen the ads for Varidesks on TV. Jason McCann is the CEO of the Texas company, which started out making holiday lighting. “One of our founders was having sciatic nerve pain, and that led him on a journey to find a sit/stand solution and we couldn’t find one, so we ended up creating our own product,” he says.

They made the Varidesk prototype about six years ago. It sits on your desktop, with your computer monitor and keyboard on it, and goes up and down so you can sit or stand while working. As workers at other companies saw the desks, they became a hot item and McCann founded a new company. “We’ve had tremendous growth,” McCann says. They started with two employees, and now they’ve got more than 250. Varidesks are now being used by hundreds of thousands of people, and are sold in all 50 states, as well as in Europe, Asia and Africa.

At first, most workers bought their own Varidesks, which run from $325 to about $500. But now, McCann says scores of companies from Google and Facebook to Pepsi, GE and 3M provide them to their workers at no cost because they realize the health benefits. “Our entire society has become more sedentary, and it’s across the board from schools eliminating recess, to work that is now a lot of sitting, to commutes, to social time spent sitting … you shouldn’t sit all day. It’s the idea of being active throughout the day, it’s the way our bodies were originally created,” McCann says.

Sitting down while working on patients all day for more than 30 years created problems for Dr. Jeff Trammel, a Yakima dentist. “I was noticing I’d get up and my back would be sore and the back of my legs would be sore after a long appointment such as a root canal.” One of his hygienists, Olga Gutierrez, is a young woman, but the chairs were already causing issues for her, too. “It was getting to the point … I would stand up, try to get up off my regular chair and I felt like I couldn’t straighten out my back. I felt like I was 80 years old,” she says.

Gutierrez heard about saddle chairs at a dental convention, and asked Dr. Trammel if she could try one out. Saddle chairs, according to companies that make them, improve leg circulation because there is no chair edge to press against the upper leg. It curves the lower back into an anatomically correct position, strengthening the back and abdominal muscles while improving posture.

“There was an immediate difference — a huge difference for my back,” Gutierrez says, though the chair took a while to get used to. Trammel started using one also, and says it relieved his back and leg issues. When he leaned over patients in the old chair, he was forced to hunch over. He says he can now get closer to patients without hunching. He ended up ordering saddle chairs for all his dental personnel because he and his hygienists like them so much.

Trammel has made other ergonomic improvements, too. “Our front desk people who sit all day long, we encourage them to use headpiece headphones so they can get up and walk around during the day,” he says.

In the end, it’s all about giving your body a break from repetitive tasks and postures. Experts suggest getting up from your desk, if only for a few minutes every hour, stretching, and walking around. If you’re hurting, see a doctor and ask if changing your work routine or getting equipment that’s more ergonomic will help. Employers across the nation are becoming more likely to accommodate these requests.

Scott offers this advice: “It’s just the same movement all the time, so if you can do something different, like stand or sit; it’ll change the whole thing. It’ll help.”

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