Professional Development: Ergonomics Provide A Boost In Tough Times

By Derek Timm
Published in the March 2009 issue of
Today’s Facility Manager

With mounting economic pressures in companies across America, productivity is increasingly scrutinized, layoffs are widespread, and bankruptcies aren’t uncommon. No business—no matter how large or small—is immune to tightening budgets, making it a challenge for facility managers (fms) to embrace growing technology needs, address multigenerational workplace differences, and ensure workers are provided with office environments that promote physical health. Although the current fiscal landscape is less than desirable, there are ways to maximize space and productivity while reducing cost of ownership and increasing a facility’s sustainability. One of these ways is through the use of ergonomics.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 2,500 companies issued mass layoffs in November 2008, leaving a total of more than 200,000 workers without a job—and that’s just in the span of a single month. Remaining employees are being asked to pick up the slack, perform more duties, and take on responsibilities outside of their usual roles, making them more susceptible to fatigue or injury as a result.

In other words, the staff is going away, but the workloads are not. The incorporation of flexible furnishings (including height adjustable work surfaces, articulating monitor mounts, and functional keyboard platforms) that easily adapt to different users and spaces not only helps circumvent physical aches and pains, but it may also reap substantial monetary dividends for fms.

The avoidance of facilities related costs, coupled with the need to move workers and adjust workspaces when colleagues are let go, creates a contradictory situation: each adjustment or move of a static workspace costs an average of $200 to $400. Why is this? It’s because the worker needs to be absent from his or her desk for approximately two hours, and facility/maintenance and IT personnel need to be present for the move.

Moves like this are unavoidable; it’s unrealistic to expect an employee in the fifth percentile (4’11” tall) to move into a workspace previously set up for someone in the 95th percentile (6’3″ tall). So what’s a realistic solution?

At a minimum, replacing a static workspace with a height adjustable surface costs $700, which at first might seem costly in a world of diminishing returns. However, if two to five workspace moves occur in one year, the resulting cost can range from $400 to $2,000. In this example, investing in one height adjustable workstation pays for itself in one to two years.

For another compelling economic equation, consider that avoiding just one worker’s compensation case caused by repetitive stress injuries (i.e. carpal tunnel syndrome) can save an average of $50,000, which is ultimately enough to front the cost of outfitting 70 work areas with $700 adjustable workstations. And this $50,000 figure is without additional dollars spent on possible chiropractic bills or the need for other staff members to work overtime to accommodate for missing co-workers.

Maximizing space utilization by reducing a workstation’s footprint is appealing for many reasons in these lean times. Less space used equates to lower property and utility costs. New systems furniture designs coupled with the latest computer technologies (such as LCD monitors) allow for space reductions of up to 20%. During these “re-stacks”—internal redesign or changes when furniture or personnel locations are changed in a facility—there is a prime opportunity to incorporate ergonomic adjustability that adapts to any setting or situation.

In addition, the selection of office furnishings should be based on adjustability, durability, and longevity to minimize pressure on the environment and landfills by offering a solution that lasts and adapts for years between users. This adjustability is especially appreciated by employees, since smaller spaces call for more collaboration and shared work areas. In fact, the flexibility provided by adding ergonomic solutions to a work area can help to improve users’ comfort and may even boost morale.

In addition to economic concerns, the phenomena of having four generations represented in the workplace for the first time in modern history must also be considered. Time is not an ally to the human body, and older workers are much more attuned to their physical requirements for comfort, making adjustability paramount. Having to strain, bend, and remain in awkward positions as a result of not having furnishings that are conducive to physical needs can cause discomfort and fatigue.

This is bad enough in normal economic times when demands on workers are average, but it’s even worse in lean times when employees are expected to sustain higher levels of performance for longer periods of time. Multigenerational and multi-shift facilities (i.e. health care), where it’s difficult to match peoples’ sizes to each task, necessitate the greatest degree of adjustability.

To meet these needs with ergonomics, one available option includes height adjustable tables that can be raised or lowered to sitting or standing positions. These tables allow for enhanced circulation and decompression of the spine while working.

Helping to prevent eyestrain, articulating arms enable the mounting of single and multiple computer monitors, allowing workers to adjust screens so they can view them at a comfortable height and distance. Other simple solutions are movable keyboard trays and mouse platforms that can be repositioned for painless usage—a key method of addressing discomfort in the hands, wrists, and shoulders. Seating with full back support, balance, and adjustment options for height and armrests (as well as lighting fixtures that can be moved according to task requirements) also contribute to creating a more “ergonomically correct” environment.

While ergonomics is a practice that many fms consider cost prohibitive, it can make the difference between having a stable, safe, and productive staff as opposed to one that is physically ailing and unhappy as a result of an inadequate work environment. And now that many products are available at reasonable price points to meet varying budget needs, ergonomics is no longer an option: it’s a necessity for today’s dedicated workers.

Timm is product manager/national technical services manager for Workrite Ergonomics, Inc. based in Petaluma, CA. For more information on the company and its offerings, call (800) 959-9675.