How Engineers Can Optimize Computer Ergonomics for Productivity

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An employee at her desk stretches her back and rubs her shoulder.On average, Americans spend 6 hours, 42 minutes daily accessing the Internet on a digital device — a laptop, smartphone, or computer desktop — according to Digital 2020, a report by media company We Are Social and Hootsuite. Much of that time, of course, may be spent sitting at a desk typing and scrolling.

Employers, to combat mental and physical fatigue and spur performance and productivity, should encourage employees to take breaks. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recommends that employees working an eight-hour day should take two small breaks and be provided an additional break for lunch. Furthermore, organizations can implement ergonomic workstations to further mitigate the negative effects of these repetitive, sedentary tasks.

Now more than ever, organizational leaders understand the importance of computer ergonomics in addressing human issues related to excessive computer use. Engineering professionals can help alleviate these issues through ergonomic design.

What Is Computer Ergonomics?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the study of ergonomics helps organizations and individuals understand how poor posture, repetitive movements, vibration, and excessive force can negatively affect the physical health of an individual. Engineers with knowledge of computer ergonomics can help organizations develop strategies to prevent employee injury and fatigue due to the poor ergonomic design of digital devices and workstations.

Before implementing these strategies, professionals need to understand the various components that make up an ergonomic workspace.

  • Desks: Organizations must provide employees with a desk that delivers enough room for their monitor, keyboard, telephone, document holder, and other essential tools. There must also be ample space underneath the desk for an individual’s legs.
  • Chairs: An ergonomically designed chair must have armrests to support an employee’s shoulders. An office chair should also provide the necessary support for an individual’s back and buttocks. Chairs should be adjustable to allow employees of varying heights to place their feet flat on the floor.
  • Telephones: For employees who utilize the telephone, employers should provide a headset to prevent neck strain. Employers can purchase phones that easily sync with wireless headsets (that don’t have long electrical cords that can become tangled).
  • Monitors: Computer monitors need to be at least an arm’s length away from an employee’s line of vision. The monitor screen must also be glare-resistant to prevent eye strain. Lastly, employers can purchase an adjustable monitor, so that the top of the monitor can be aligned with an employee’s eye level.
  • Keyboards: Ergonomic keyboards and computer mice can prevent musculoskeletal injuries and repetitive strain injuries (RSI). Mice that offer sensitivity options can help prevent repetitive wrist motions that lead to wrist strain. Ergonomic keyboards are designed to prevent musculoskeletal injuries that result from typing.
  • Document Holders: These tools allow employees to keep printed documents at eye level, which helps prevent eye strain. Document holders can also prevent musculoskeletal injuries related to repetitive neck movements.

The Role of Engineers in Computer Ergonomics

Engineers can play an integral role in developing strategies to optimize computer ergonomics in a workspace. However, they must understand some key human factors — physical build, ocular stress, and work-related stress — that contribute to the overall optimization of a workspace.

Physical Build

Individuals’ physical build can affect how they interact with their workspace. As each employee’s physical build varies, engineers understand that the development of strategies to meet these various physical attributes have to be addressed. The utilization of effective computer ergonomics can prevent musculoskeletal injuries related to physical straining of the neck, back, shoulders, elbows, and wrists.

These issues can be mitigated by ensuring that employees’ workstations can be modified to their measurements. Engineers can develop chairs with adequate lumbar support, as well as adjustable armrests to keep arms at a 90-degree angle. Adjustable armrests and chairs provide employees of various heights the ergonomic support they need, which can prevent musculoskeletal injuries such as strained joints or muscles.

As briefly mentioned above, ergonomic computer desks can provide employees with essential support. Engineers can design ergonomic desks that can be adjusted to an employee’s height and build to provide ample space below the desk for workers of varying physical size. Furthermore, many ergonomic designs allow employees to adjust their desks so they can work standing up. This ergonomic solution can promote less muscle strain on an individual’s body.

Ocular Stress

Ergonomically designed computers can decrease ocular health issues that may inhibit an employee’s productivity. Employees who spend a majority of their time in front of a computer screen tend to be more prone to ocular health issues such as decreased visual acuity, blurred vision, dry eyes, headaches, and double vision.

Engineers can utilize their knowledge of computer ergonomics to address these issues. For example, they can develop adjustable computers that can be tilted to meet an individual’s eye level. The labor union, Communication Workers of America, suggests that computer monitor screens be at least 9×11 inches in size to prevent eye strain.

Engineers can also design computer monitors that have a special non-reflective coating to prevent ocular strain. Computer monitors should provide the option for employees to adjust brightness, color, and contrast to meet their vision needs.

Work-Related Stress

Employees across all sectors of the workforce experience work-related stress in one form or another. Stress at work can impact an individual’s mental and physical health, and can lead to musculoskeletal injuries. For example, individuals who work a significant amount of overtime may be impacted by the overuse of muscles, joints, or tendons. These employees can especially benefit from an ergonomic workspace.

Challenges of Creating an Ergonomic Workplace

In 2018, the private sector saw about 30% of full-time workers taking some time off work due to musculoskeletal disorders (MSD), according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The BLS also reports that MSD cases occurred at a rate of about 27.2 cases per 10,000 employees. Organizations that implement computer ergonomics into their business strategy can potentially decrease lost productivity and other costs directly related to MSDs.

Even with these and other statistics highlighting the importance of addressing MSDs in the workplace, creating an ergonomic workplace can still be a challenge. Engineers must rely on their knowledge and skills to overcome the hurdles they face in helping organizations understand the importance of computer ergonomics.

Lack of Education

Often, organizational leaders and their employees are unaware of or misinformed about MSDs, workplace hazards, and the benefits of ergonomic design. Proponents of computer ergonomics must leverage workforce education to overcome this information gap. Education programs can help employees identify workplace issues that may contribute to musculoskeletal disorders that ultimately lead to repetitive strain injuries and other health issues. Then, when an issue arises, employees can address it with their managers or supervisors, who can help them make an ergonomic change to their workstation.

Poor Component Quality

Another challenge for implementing ergonomic design in the workplace is the use of older or specialized equipment that is difficult to update and improve. For cost and other reasons, organizations may need to continue using equipment that is not ergonomically optimal. Employers should work with engineers who are trained in computer ergonomics to determine what changes can be made and when. For example, a schedule for equipment maintenance or updating can be created to allow for a smooth transition to equipment better suited to employee health and productivity.

Lack of Resources

Organizations may also simply not have the resources (financial, staffing, and otherwise) to invest in ergonomic workstations as quickly or completely as they would like. Instituting ergonomic solutions can sometimes be expensive. In these cases, employers need to work with computer ergonomics professionals to find budget-friendly solutions. Or they may consider providing ergonomic workstations first to at-risk employees, before rolling the solutions out more broadly. Lastly, organizations should consider the risks involved in not investing in preventative measures. These may include incurring greater costs in lost productivity, employee turnover, and workers’ compensation claims down the line.

Explore How Engineers are Leveraging Computer Ergonomics to Promote Productivity and Safety

The work of engineers in designing and optimizing workstations can help prevent workplace injuries and increase employee performance and productivity. As a result, organizations can realize higher employee satisfaction, reduced turnover and sick days, and better financial performance.

Engineers who are interested in helping organizations implement effective ergonomic strategies — and who want to lead engineering teams, departments, or organizations — should consider an advanced degree in engineering management.

Ohio University’s online Master of Engineering Management (MEM) provides students an opportunity to acquire the knowledge base and skills to excel in a variety of engineering positions and fields. The program covers Project Management, Database Information Systems, Principles of Six Sigma, Applied Accounting and Finance for Engineering Management, and other topics.

Explore how Ohio University’s online Master of Engineering Management can prepare you for a rewarding career in engineering leadership, helping organizations improve employee health and productivity through computer ergonomics.

Recommended Readings

Engineering Communication Guide: Skills, Tips, and Tools

Information Systems Engineering: Leadership in a Growing Industry

Leadership in Engineering: Why Is It So Important?

Sources:

Applied Ergonomics, “Barriers for Implementation of Successful Change to Prevent Musculoskeletal Disorders and How to Systematically Address Them”

Business Fibre, “Screen Time: UK vs US vs The Rest of the World Compared

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Ergonomics and Musculoskeletal Disorders

Communications Workers of America, Computer Workplace Ergonomics

Ergonomic Trends, “Repetitive Strain Injuries 42 Statistics Every Worker Should Know About”

Houston Chronicle, “What are the OSHA Requirements for Breaks During a 12 Hour Shift?”

The Joint Chiropractic, “The Science of Computer Economics”

Mayo Clinic, “Office Ergonomics: Your How-to-Guide”

Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Workstation Components

TechRepublic, “Stand Up and Stretch: Improving the Ergonomics of Your Office Boosts Productivity and Reduces Injury”

U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, Fact Sheet | Occupational injuries and illnesses resulting in musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) | May 2020

We Are Social, Digital in 2020