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The changing faces of ergonomics and workplace design

Posted on November 16, 2016 by Charles Marks

workplace design

The big problem with the way some people talk about the term ‘ergonomic’ is that they use it to describe the design of objects when really it’s about a relationship; that between a person and the things around them. It’s an abstract idea, about both facilities AND management, so is dependent on a number of variables. So, when those variables change, what we understand to be good ergonomics changes too. The principle of ergonomics as we now understand it first came to prominence in the wake of the intensive growth in the use of computers. The legacy of this fixed view is an enduring 20th Century approach based on an idea of desk-bound employees with a computer, whereas how we work now bears little resemblance to how we worked 25 or even ten years ago.

Modern life relentlessly offers us not only new opportunities but also new ways of harming ourselves. One of the most recently identified was named by researchers at the University of Basel as ‘Laptop Thigh’. Caused by prolonged exposure of the skin to moderate heat, the physical condition itself is nothing new. It goes by the medical name of erythema ab igne. Where once doctors were most likely to see it on the skin of workers in bakeries, it is now more closely associated with people spending long periods at home with laptops braising their legs. The condition is closely associated with changes in the way we work. It is a social and economic ailment as much as it is a physical one.

office design and technologyAs well as lightly toasted thighs, people are also likely to be storing up less visible but more damaging conditions. No workplace would countenance staff working in armchairs with a laptop on their knee for hours at a time. Yet organisations routinely accept it for home workers. According to a recent report from the CBI, working from home has soared in popularity with two thirds of businesses making use of it, a huge jump when you consider that a year previously it was under a half of all firms. If you go back to 2004, it was only around one in ten. Another survey from BT found that while 83 per cent of businesses provide staff with mobile and wireless gadgets to promote flexible working, only 62 per cent back this up with formal ‘working from home’ policies.

The health and safety issues involved are complex, but all rely on one fundamental principle; the company has the same obligations to its homeworking employees as it does to its office based staff. Many of these obligations are laid out in the Health and Safety at Work Act (HSWA) and include the need to supply appropriate equipment, carry out risk assessments, offer training and generally provide a safe working environment. Related legislation such as the Display Screen Equipment Regulations is equally applicable, albeit dated in some circumstances.

However, this is not a matter solely about equipment and legislation. It is also about workplace design and management. We all have an obligation to accept that it is clearly not acceptable to work with a laptop on our knees for hours at a time. We wouldn’t do it in the office, so we shouldn’t do it at home.

Even now, the problem of ‘Laptop Thigh’ is generating fewer headlines than the new but related ailment of ‘iPad Neck’. Tablet PCs present their own unique ergonomic challenges because users typically hold them low down, creating an instantaneous poor posture. The problem has been labelled by a research team from the Harvard School of Public Health in the United States,  in a study of how people use a tablet in a variety of different ways, then researchers measured the head and neck movements of each user.

The results showed that tablets which were held in the lap caused greater bending of the head and neck leading to neck and shoulder pains. The author of the study Dr Jack Dennerlein said the following about the results: “Compared to typical desktop computing scenarios, the use of tablet computers is associated with high head and neck flexion postures, and there may be more of a concern for the development of neck and shoulder discomfort. Only when the tablets were used in the table-movie configuration, where the devices were set at their steepest case angle setting and at the greatest horizontal and vertical position, did posture approach neutral. This suggests that tablet users should place the tablet higher, on a table rather than a lap, to avoid low gaze angles, and use a case that provides steeper viewing angles. However, steeper angles may be detrimental for continuous input with the hands.”

We are likely to see a greater incidence of related issues as more and more of us work on tablet computers. This will require a new approach to ergonomicsergonomics, based on providing people with the right equipment but also addressing the management and workplace design issues that make the difference.  Many of us would benefit from frequently varying the position in which we work throughout the day, even working standing up for some periods. This is already commonplace in many European offices thanks to their greater use of sit-stand workstations. At the very least, regular breaks should be taken to stretch and walk about, to avoid all the aches and pains associated with inactivity. Workplace products such as chairs can help by being designed and adjusted to encourage movement.

Ergonomics is an issue that relies on the entire workspace, not just an individual’s workstation. It is about knowledge, culture and variety, not least when it involves working with contemporary technology. Not only do we need to train people to understand the importance of using technology in the most appropriate way, we need to encourage them to move when they are sitting and get up and wander whenever they can and work when standing if they enjoy products such as the Humanscale Float table (right). The options are plentiful. We have already experienced the ubiquity of break-out spaces, cafes and kitchens as a way of escaping the screen. Several companies have introduced ‘no email’ days, which offers the dual advantages of getting bums off seats and encouraging informal encounters between colleagues. But most important in this regard is a culture that understands the complexities of ergonomics and the way we work and what workplace design and good management can do to resolve them.