This article endeavors to emphasize the importance of proactive workstation ergonomics in a university environment. This is especially important in a university environment which is characterized by both clerical and academic functions.
Office ergonomics is the science of adapting the workstation to the worker as opposed to the worker having to adapt to the workstation. This is a significant concept given the proliferation of the personal computer in the office environment in the past 15 years. One might argue that users, especially Baby Boomers, were taught how to operate a personal computer but in many cases were not instructed on how to safely use the computer as it relates to sound ergonomic principles. This is evidenced in the increasing number of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) affecting all costs in the office environment each year which, in turn, has compelled management to view worker safety in a new paradigm. While worker satisfaction is an important factor driving prevention of MSDs, so is cost. According to Rick Goggins, Ergonomist for the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries, the average cost of a typical MSD in Washington is around $10,000. Furthermore, MSDs are frequently not reported as work-related injuries and, instead, are
treated through organizational private health plans as opposed to being covered by worker’s compensation insurance. This results in increased organizational health plan costs and, in either case, time loss is usually involved.
The presence of ergonomics has grown in the traditional office environment for the past 15 years in an effort to mitigate or prevent employee injuries related to keyboarding, mousing, computer monitor eyestrain, and telephone use. Conversely, office ergonomics programs have not been widely evident in the university environment.
The Changing University Instructional Environment
The office environment at a university mirrors that of the public and private sector, especially in the area of administration and clerical functions. However, as it relates to faculty, there may be a misperception that professors tend to spend proportionately less time seated behind the computer given the requirement for classroom teaching and reading/grading hardcopy student papers and exams. This misconception may lead to a conscious decision not to provide ergonomic services to faculty. In reality, when teaching in a traditional classroom environment, faculty members spend as many as four to six hours per day seated behind the computer developing examinations and course syllabi, as well as communicating with students via email and researching on-line.
Many courses are now being offered in a format combining classroom and online components. This hybrid approach of teaching in both a traditional and online environment is becoming the norm rather than the exception. When assigned an online course, a professor’s time seated behind the computer increases significantly. Assignments are almost exclusively submitted electronically. Various software programs allow the professor to grade and return assignments electronically as well. “Virtual” office hours are also becoming the norm with students chatting with instructors during designated time frames. One community college instructor noted that her time behind the computer averaged approximately 10 hours per hour of content presented in an online format. As universities compete for students, they are finding the demand of online course offerings increasing, thereby requiring universities that were once focused exclusively on traditional classroom instructional delivery having to expand to the online course environment in order to remain competitive.
From a preventative perspective, an initial workstation evaluation can determine ergonomic equipment needs, such as a chair, keyboard tray, etc. and serves as an opportunity to educate the employee on ergonomic principles such as a neutral ergonomic posture and MSD prevention. For example, if documents that are referenced when keyboarding are laid flat, there is a potential for discomfort in the back and neck. A simple intervention of a document holder (equipment) and proper positioning and neutral posture (education) can make a difference.
For employees experiencing problems, ergonomic equipment and education interventions can result in the mitigation or elimination of certain conditions. For example, employees commonly lean forward in their chair when keyboarding. This position inhibits the normal S-shape of the spine and, along with the unnatural position of neck muscles associated with moving the head forward of neutral, can contribute to low back and neck pain. An intervention consisting of a keyboard tray and ergonomic chair, and
one-on-one education regarding neutral ergonomic posture will make the employee more comfortable and safer.
However, an ergonomics program in a university environment will go nowhere if faculty and staff don’t know it exists. This is especially true during the traditionally busy fall and spring semesters. As such, a multifaceted marketing program is necessary to “get the word out.” This includes actively promoting the ergonomics program at new faculty and staff orientation, in university newsletters, on the university’s webpage, in email reminders, and, hopefully, through word of mouth of satisfied “customers.”
The outcomes of an active ergonomics program can be profound. For example, Goggins reported that, based on a review of case studies in office ergonomics, a well-implemented program can reduce MSDs by 50 percent and related costs by 80 percent. It has been found that both faculty and staff recognize and embrace the benefits of workstation ergonomics. As a result, the organization potentially experiences lower medical costs and happier, healthier, and more productive employees in the long run.
Editor’s Note: Ron Prindle, Ph.D., PHR, is Benefits Specialist at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. He has over 25 years of ergonomics experience in military, state and academic organizations.
This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2007-03-29.