The health and career hazards of poor ergonomics

As you read these words on a desktop, laptop, tablet or smartphone, I wonder if you’re looking slightly downward, experiencing any pain or fretting over the ergonomic design of your workstation. If so, then you might be on track for the same rude awakening I had last year – one that could stall your productivity and career, much less your health and wellbeing.

I woke up one morning in the middle of January last year with a stiff neck that I casually attributed to a restless sleep. The discomfort persistent for two months, so I scheduled a chiropractic appointment and learned from an x-ray of my neck that the three lower vertebra were nearly bone on bone. I was told that more than three decades of writing deadlines, coupled with poor workplace ergonomic practices, finally caught up with me.

The prescribed solution: regular chiropractic corrections that would taper off over time, stretches to strengthen my spine and a redesigned workstation. The key component was a simple fix, and I’d imagine that some of you may have already been told to do the same. In a nutshell, I bought a wireless keyboard and placed my laptop on top of my printer-scanner so that my neck would no longer bend too low when peering into my computer monitor.

Also see:30 people to watch in benefits in 2017.

For those of you who still have a desktop, the fix is even easier: just elevate your monitor without having to buy a new keyboard. I also re-learned the importance of frequently stepping away from my workstation to relieve my hands, eyes and neck and not skipping the suggested 12-minute spinal conditioning program conveniently presented in a YouTube video.

By following these instructions, I was finally able to turn a corner after months of daily pain or discomfort that appeared to be chronic and something I feared would never go away. It took time and patience, as well as hope and faith.

It also got me thinking about how potentially widespread this problem could be for busy people from all industries who spend most of their time on devices with a craned neck and few work breaks. Employee benefit professionals certainly fall into this category. If anything, I figured they’d be more aware of the need for proper workplace ergonomics in order to prevent workers’ comp claims related to repetitive motion or other injuries and to promote better employee health.

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But it’s easy to take our knowledge for granted or not apply it to our busy lives. For me, there’s an inescapable irony. Soon after writing my first story about the need for proper workplace ergonomics in August 1990, I developed a repetitive motion injury — one where the pain in my left hand was random, fierce or annoying for five straight years before it finally disappeared. I remember the embarrassment of filing a workers’ comp claim, thinking I should have known better and paid closer attention to my workstation design before writing that fateful article.

I immediately embraced proper ergonomics and shouted this message from the mountaintop. One such attempt involved a first-person commentary I wrote 10 years ago for Quill, a magazine for members of the Society of Professional Journalists to which I belonged. I figured fellow scribes could benefit a great deal from my own journey, noting: “At a time when we’re expected to work smarter than ever before, none of us can afford to ignore proper ergonomics — an applied science examining the fit between workers and their environment. To do so, we risk developing crippling or career-ending injuries to our hands, neck and back.”

After re-reading the article in preparation for this EBA blog, I discovered a startling discrepancy between what I was taught or read about positioning the neck back then compared with today. For example, I initially wrote that the computer monitor “should be anywhere from 20 to 40 degrees below the horizontal line of sight. ... There’s a good reason people tend to look in a downward direction: neck muscles strain to hold up for any length of time our heads, which weighs eight to 10 pounds.”

A decade later, I noticed that the Occupational Health & Safety Administration’s website suggests the top of a computer monitor “should be at or slightly below eye level,” while “the center of the computer monitor should normally be located 15 to 20 degrees below horizontal eye level.” OSHA’s larger point is that viewing “a display screen that is too high or low will cause you to work with your head, neck, shoulders, and even your back in awkward postures.”

I suppose that one of the biggest lessons for all of us is to periodically check in with an appropriate healthcare professional to assess our ergonomics and make any necessary tweaks. At the very least, it’s critical not to ignore any persistent pain or discomfort, which could have a lasting negative impact on our ability to work and live a productive and healthy life.

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