Workplace ergonomics: Tips to create a neutral posture

“Pay attention to ergonomics” is number four on our list of top seven workplace safety tips for a reason.

Proper ergonomics isn’t only for desk workers. Workers in every industry may be at risk for musculoskeletal disorders, which can be the result of cumulative stress due to sustained movements or body positions.

In a recent Rand Corporation survey, a majority of respondents reported physically strenuous working conditions:

  • 60 percent engaged in one or more of the following activities: moving heavy loads or people at least 25 percent of the time, maintaining tiring or painful positions at least 25 percent of the time or standing almost all or all of the time
  • 75 percent used repetitive hand/arm movements at least 25 percent of the time

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that prolonged standing was associated with musculoskeletal disorders, including back pain and muscle pain. Sixty-six percent of workers in the survey reported frequent standing at work.

“Regardless of whether it’s an office, manufacturing or construction site — very different settings — we are evaluating the same exposure to risk factors,” according to Tim Collin, president and CEO of CompRehab, an SFM subsidiary.

Risk factors such as awkward positions, repetition, force and lack of recovery time can be reduced with accommodations or modifications to the work environment.

How to maintain a neutral posture at work

A neutral posture helps mitigate the risks that go along with awkward positions and postures.

Prevent discomfort while sitting or standing for an extended period with these tips for maintaining a neutral posture .

Whether you’re sitting or standing, some basic guidelines apply:

  1. Keep a neutral posture:
    • Head centered over the neck and shoulders, not turned to the side
    • Wrists straight and flat
    • Upper arms resting comfortably at your side
    • Feet resting comfortably on the floor or a footrest
  1. Position work tools within easy reach to avoid repeated reaching or twisting and turning.
  1. Generally, work should be done at elbow height.
  1. When using the phone, consider a headset or speaker option. Bending your neck to cradle the phone between your shoulder and your ear is definitely not neutral posture.
  1. Turning your neck to the side for long periods is also considered an awkward posture. Set the height and position of monitors and documents so your head and neck stay in neutral position.
  1. If your work requires lifting, follow these safe lifting tips.

Alternative workstations and laptop ergonomics

Using a laptop or mobile device can make it harder to achieve a neutral posture, so here are some additional tips for laptop and tablet ergonomics. If you have a treadmill desk or standing desk, consider the risks and benefits of alternative workstations.

Add movement: The 20-8-2 rule

Even after your workstation setup is optimized for your comfort, you shouldn’t sit there all day.

In the same Rand survey on working conditions mentioned above, 44 percent of people reported sitting all or almost all of the time. If your job is predominantly sedentary, try to build in at least two hours of movement throughout the day.

The 20-8-2 rule offers a quick rule of thumb to remind you to change positions and get up and move. This “ideal work pattern” was pioneered by Dr. Alan Hedge, a professor of ergonomics at Cornell University.

For every half-hour of work:

  • Sit for 20
  • Stand for 8
  • Stretch or move for 2

The frequency of position changes may be more important than the length of the break. Changing positions often will help you maintain focus and energy throughout your workday.

This post was originally published on November 1, 2017, and updated on March 30, 2018.

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