Ergonomic Workplace Design: What It Is and How It Can Benefit Your Business
Workplace design has undergone a multitude of evolutions in the last century, with the open rooms full of desks in straight lines giving way to cubicles and private offices, then morphing back into open-concept design focused on collaboration. Many of these design changes were driven by aesthetics or (somewhat misguided) theories of what would make employees more productive.
The past decade has brought forth a new step in workplace design evolution: ergonomic workplace design.
This principle is more than just finding space-aged chairs designed to eliminate lumbar pain and adding standing desks. The goal of ergonomic workplace design is to intentionally choose the fixtures, layout and features of a workspace to increase worker efficiency and productivity while reducing discomfort.
Learn more about what ergonomic workplace design is, its benefits and how you can make your workspace more ergonomic.
The Fundamentals of Ergonomic Workplace Design
Ergonomic workplace design isn’t just for office jobs; it can be applied to all industries to keep workers healthy and productive.
Core Principles of Ergonomic Workplace Design
Every worker is different, and the changes and accommodations to a workspace may vary from one person to another.
However, there are some key principles of an ergonomic workspace that can be adjusted to provide everyone an ergonomic workspace. These include:
- Work in a neutral position. Whether sitting or standing, maintaining a neutral body position as much as possible is key. This includes maintaining the S-curve in the spine and keeping the neck, elbows and wrists in a relaxed, aligned position.
- Reduce the need for excessive force. Pushing, pulling and lifting heavy items can strain your joints, which creates the possibility for fatigue or injury.
- Keep materials nearby. Your reach envelope — the distance you can reach in a semicircle when your arms are fully extended — is the space where you should keep materials you use frequently during the workday.
- Work at the proper height. When your work surface is too high or too low, it can strain your back, neck and shoulders. Most of your work should be done at elbow height, regardless of whether you’re sitting or standing.
- Reduce unnecessary motions. Frequent repetition of the same movements can lead to overuse injuries. The more you can reduce these motions, the less likely you are to be injured.
- Minimize static load fatigue. Holding the same position for an extended period can cause soreness and strain, even long after you’ve finished the task.
- Decrease contact stress. When a tool or surface repeatedly comes into contact with the same area of your body, this is called contact stress. Routinely squeezing a tool or holding a heavy item can cause fatigue, discomfort and injury.
- Leave adequate clearance. To prevent injury and give yourself space to stretch when necessary, ensuring you have enough room for your head, knees and feet at your workstation is crucial.
- Move throughout the day. Remaining in one place for long periods of time can have a variety of health effects. Taking breaks to walk around, stretch or, if you’re standing most of the day, sit down can make a big difference.
- Keep your workspace comfortable. Harsh lighting, extreme temperatures and loud or constant noises can all have a negative impact on your health.
Key Components of Ergonomic Workspaces
Setting up a workspace for better ergonomics may require a variety of adjustments and accommodations, both to the physical fixtures of the work environment as well as the way workers operate in that environment.
Some key components of ergonomic workspaces include:
- Ergonomic furniture: This can include chairs with lumbar support and footrests, desks or tables that can raise or lower to be more comfortable or workspaces that allow for easy access to frequently used items.
- Computers and accessories: Computer monitors that are placed at eye level, keyboards and mice that are designed with ergonomics in mind and glare-reducing screens can adapt a work environment to a variety of needs.
- Lighting: Lighting that is too harsh or too dim can lead to eye strain and headaches and may increase the risk of accidents. Adjusting general lighting levels to a comfortable range whenever possible is ideal, but if that isn’t possible, it’s important to look for ways to allow individual workers to reduce their eye strain. This could include allowing sunglasses or other eyewear to reduce harsh lighting, or offering desk lamps when lighting is too dim.
- Acoustics: Long-term exposure to sounds that are too loud can cause hearing damage. Providing hearing protection or, whenever possible, reducing the noise level in a workspace, can preserve worker hearing and reduce work-related hearing issues.
Benefits of Ergonomic Workplace Design
Making ergonomic workplace design a priority for your company will pay off in a number of ways. Here are some benefits of opting for ergonomic workspace design.
Improved Employee Health and Wellbeing
Employees whose workspaces aren’t ergonomically friendly are more prone to injuries. These could be the result of accidents or long-term use.
When you set up your worksite with ergonomics in mind, workers can protect their health at work and reduce rates of injuries. Even if improving the ergonomics of a worker’s space simply results in them having less soreness at the end of the day, that can go a long way toward protecting the worker’s mental, physical and emotional wellbeing.
A clean, well-designed workspace sets your workers up for success. When they can easily access all the tools of their jobs, and they aren’t experiencing pain and stress from poorly designed work areas, they’ll be better able to complete their tasks quickly.
When your workers are healthy, they are also less likely to experience stress, fatigue and burnout, all of which are huge drivers of time off work. By improving working conditions, your workers are more likely to make it to work every day, and their chances of giving you their best efforts are higher.
Boosted Employee Engagement and Job Satisfaction
Workers who feel that you care about their health and wellbeing are more likely to feel satisfied with their jobs. They will give you their time and attention, and they are less likely to seek other employment.
Happy workers will tell their friends and connections about their positive experience at your company, which can improve your chances of recruiting top talent when you do have open positions.
Investing in ergonomic improvements may be a significant upfront cost, but that expenditure will pay off in reduced rates of work-related injuries and decreased absenteeism. Work-related injuries can cost thousands of dollars, and the more you can prevent injuries, the better off your business will be financially.
Additionally, if you’re able to retain workers for longer due to high workplace morale, you’ll also spend less money recruiting new workers for open jobs.
How to Implement Ergonomic Design in Your Workplace
Creating an ergonomically friendly workspace is a process that requires consistent adjustments and updating.
If you’re looking to begin implementing ergonomic design in your workplace, here are some steps to take.
Evaluate Your Current Workspace
The first step is to determine where your workspace is at now in terms of ergonomics. Survey workers to find out how they work and if they feel changes could be made to improve their working conditions. Observe employees as they work, looking for instances of overexertion, excessive bending and reaching or other things that could be improved.
It may be beneficial to bring in outside professionals to conduct this audit, as specially trained industrial physical therapists are primed to see small things that you may not otherwise catch.
Make Necessary Adjustments
Once you’ve discovered things that can be improved about your workplace, it’s time to shift into making those improvements. Financially, it’s ideal to make a ranked list with the adjustments that are most critical first and tackle those as soon as possible.
Investing in new furniture or lighting may require more work disruption as you install new fixtures, so this phase could take some time to complete. Smaller items such as noise-cancelling headphones or anti-fatigue mats can be rolled out quickly, giving your workers a boost as they see you’re making the effort to improve their working conditions.
Train and Educate Employees
Some of the ergonomic adjustments, such as adjustable desks or new tools, may require employee training sessions. Be sure to include these items in any new employee training going forward, as well.
Have a designated contact person on your team who can help answer questions regarding new adjustments, and who can continue to collect feedback on future improvements. Creating a culture of ergonomics doesn’t end with the first phase of new furniture and tools; it’s an ever-evolving process that requires your continued investment for the good of your employees.
Your Partner in Workplace Health and Safety
At Medcor, we make it our mission to help you build safe, healthy work environments no matter your industry. Our onsite clinics help your workers get the care they need for work-related illnesses and injuries, saving you money and reducing claims. Specialized safety training services can help you identify the risks particular to your individual work environment, allowing you to avoid accidents before they happen. Speak with an advocate today.