Office Work: The Evolution of a Health Hazard and the Solution

29 October 2018

The story of today’s office starts with the Industrial Revolution. There quickly grew a need to process ever-increasing amounts of information. Office technology then included quill pens, pen knives, inkwells, sand for blotting ink, and candles.

As the 1800s progressed, steel pens replaced quill pens, and steel pens were replaced by typewriters. Together typewriter ribbon and carbon paper created myriad documents that needed to be filed. The file folder dates back to the American Civil War, and the first file cabinet to 1898.

The core of today’s office was in place by 1900. The vast changes over the century since have made processing information faster and vastly more efficient. Despite the dynamic changes in information tools, the configuration of office workspaces scarcely changed.

Office Work Is a Health Hazard

Information technology has evolved spectacularly over the last several decades. What evolved far more slowly is the realization that office work imposes unnatural stresses on the human body. It took decades before the costs of poor posture and repetitive movement were finally understood.

The seriousness of prolonged sitting at a work station is seldom realized. An Australian study of 200,000 people aged 45 and over found that there were 5,000 deaths in three years, with 7% of the deaths related to prolonged sitting. Movement and standing during the work day reduced this risk.

Current research shows significant employee health problems from prolonged sitting in work situations. Standing helps, but prolonged standing also has some negative impacts on employee health.  Standing  does have some impact on productivity: a standing employee has better voice projection and reflects more confidence in phone calls. The optimum between sitting and standing is an adjustable work station.

The Solution: Ergonomics

Good ergonomic design reduces absenteeism, reduces work related stress, improves posture and reduces long-term health problems such as musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). Case studies show that well-designed ergonomic office equipment has a positive impact, particularly if combined with some training on the importance of ergonomics (the training can be online, from supplier brochures or personal trainers).

The Washington State Department of Labor and Industries is a frontrunner in studying the importance of ergonomics for the contemporary office. They have reviewed  a large number of studies about the effect of ergonomically designed office equipment. Their report concludes that the payback period, that is, the point when benefits of providing ergonomic equipment equals the cost of the change, was five months. The impacts that the study found were positive and they were large. The median decrease in the occurrence of MSDs was 56%.  The median decrease in worker’s compensation was 70%, the number of lost work days was down by 80%. Overall productivity increased by 20%. That’s a fast and very significant return on investment.

The Value of Ergonomic Equipment: Case Studies

Specific case studies reinforce the point. The city of Redmond, Washington had 30 year-old work stations. Employees had been making frequent complaints about work-related pains. New ergonomically designed adjustable workstation equipment was introduced in 2008. After a year, employee complaints were sharply reduced.

The Centre  for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto, Canada has a thousand office employees, and many employees complained about work-related physical stress. In 2010, CAMH began an ergonometric awareness training program.  The training involved showing employees how stretching and standing at work was important. The training resulted in far fewer employees reporting pain at the end of their work day.

The Seattle Mariners baseball team’s ticket office at Safeco Field had frequent employee complaints about work station stress. After the installation of adjustable work surfaces, adjustable monitors and other improvements, employee complaints about work-related pain and discomfort completely stopped. Ergonomic work stations solved the complaints.

A large proportion of workers are exposed to hazardous levels of sedentary work, says an important 2016 study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine. The study found that an active work station that allowed even moderate activity significantly reduced risks to health. The study was conducted at a large Midwestern company. Among the conclusions are that using an under desk bike contributes both to employee health and productivity.

Finally, providing employees with well-designed ergonomic equipment does much more than improve employee health. A British organization, the Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors notes that providing good ergonomic equipment demonstrates to employees that their employer is committed to employee health and wellbeing, which helps attract and retain employees. The case study noting this effect also found that MSDs were reduced by 61%, lost workdays reduced by 88% and staff turnover was reduced by 87%.

The story of the 21st century office is far from over. What we can be sure of is that ergonomics will become a significant part of the story because the benefits are so positive.