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Ergonomics Explained:
An Interview with John Lane and Portia Gardner-Smith


The term ‘ergonomics’ has been around for a while now but many people may still not know exactly what it means. Ergonomics is simply the practice of fitting a job to the capabilities of a person.

Portia Gardner-Smith, an occupational therapist at Shands, knows from first hand experience that patients generally only come in for treatment after their symptoms have been present for quite some time. Gardner-Smith and colleague John Lane both work in the field ergonomics and are confident that through this field of study a large number of on the job injuries can be prevented in the near future.

“They have symptoms, they almost always will say, ‘well it hurts but no I haven’t sought treatment,’” Gardner-Smith said. “They have either brushed it off or were afraid of going in and admitting there is some kind of injury.”

Many people may question why the field of ergonomics has become so popular at this point in time. Several years ago carpal tunnel syndrome and other related repetitive stress injuries were almost unheard of. Part of the reason for the sudden appearance of these problems concerns the evolution of the workplace.

"Typewriters, for example, were not known to cause such problems. They required the user to type at a much slower pace and made them take a break from time to time to change paper or correct mistakes," Lane Explains. "With computers today, operators type at a much faster without interruption. It’s a combination of these factors as well as others that is making repetitive stress injuries a problem now compared to 20 years ago."

Lane believes that the field of ergonomics has a bit of an identity crisis.

“One of the reasons is that everybody identifies with carpal tunnel. For some reason people identify ergonomics with computer use but our data shows that although computers may contribute to a large portion of the problem, it’s still closer to number three on the list.”

Many health care providers believe the term ergonomics is used far too frequently. Manufactures now advertise and specialize in products that are “ergonomically correct.” Workers in the ergonomics program believe that this term can be deceiving.

“The worst thing is when you say ‘this is an ergonomic whatever,’ and you are telling the public that is what they need to prevent their injury, when probably what they need is something that is very customized for them. One keyboard tray is not going to work for every person,” Gardner-Smith said. “It’s the ability to adjust something that makes it more ergonomically correct so you can fit it correctly for a person.”

Ergonomics isn’t simply looking at the adjustment of a keyboard or the positioning of a chair. Ergonomics is an exact science, much more so than many people would give it credit for being.

“There are pretty good physical criteria that we’ll use as risk factors. For example, on a push/pull force we’ll look for 20 pounds as a criteria, if it’s less than that generally 75 percent of women and 90 percent of men will not be injured by that task,” Lane explains. “There is a solid database on which our recommendations are based.”

Ergonomic programs are already in place in a number of workplaces around the United States. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration approximately 67 percent of the work force is already getting ergonomics services and they are getting from 45 percent of the industries.

“Those are both bigger numbers than I anticipated,” Lane admits.

In the long run, business will see a decrease in their costs through the implementation of ergonomics programs although it may take a while for these decreases to be seen. The average cost of a work station revision can run anywhere from $250 to $500. However, the cost of treating an injury which could have been prevented is much higher.

“I think when you’re approaching a small business and saying ‘I want you to buy a couple of chairs and a couple of keyboard trays’ and they look at that cost it’s hard for them to accept that,” Gardner-Smith says. “But that does not touch the cost of sending an employee to a physician, going to therapy, splinting, medication, time away and all the indirect costs associated. I think when you add all those together you get a huge emphasis on doing some prevention and doing it early.”

Ergonomists agree that the end results of preventative measures far outweigh the up front costs to the employers.

“By preventing injuries, as a byproduct productivity is going to go way up. Then we won’t have to talk about ergonomics in 15 or 20 years because it will be just a standardized business practice, just like fire codes,” Lane said. “Ergonomics will get there, it just takes that enlightenment.”

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Disclaimer: This site and the resources within are for informational purposes only and are not intended to substitute for the care of a physician.