Ergonomics impacts workforce health

By Jake Joy DLA Disposition Services

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Are you a desk jockey? A cubicle farmer? Like many of us, does the majority of your working life involve staring at laptop and desktop computer screens, fingers tap-tapping on a keyboard or muting and unmuting conference calls?

A desk job can be a thoroughly sedentary existence, if we allow it. Between sitting in cars during the daily commute, to sitting at desks, to sitting for meals, to sitting on easy chairs to unwind before collapsing into soft beds at night, it’s very easy to develop a routine mostly devoid of activity. And that’s a recipe for early death.

The sit-stand desk is not a solution for general inactivity, but it has established itself as a valuable tool in prompting more body movement in an office setting, and the option is available to the DLA workforce. For personnel at the Hart-Dole-Inouye Federal Center, the process of securing one is pretty straightforward.

A doctor or primary care physician must first evaluate the employee and determine that an adjustable desk would be physically beneficial, then write a script or memo saying so. Armed with this essential recommendation, the employee makes an appointment for an ergonomic assessment with an approved assessor.

“Getting up and moving is a big thing now,” said Occupational Health Nurse Sharon Butters, the Ergonomics Officer for DLA in Battle Creek. “It keeps your blood vessels open by moving hourly – even if you just take a walk for two minutes – it’s less taxing on your heart. … You’ll feel healthier, more productive, and have more energy to do things after work.”

Butters, who has provided more than 850 ergonomic assessments in the past five years, defines ergonomics as the process of “making the workstation fit the worker.”

Some of ergonomics’ basic tenets involve minimizing worker fatigue and discomfort, managing exposure to repetitive tasks and avoiding the musculoskeletal disorders that can crop up from poor posture and awkward movements. For desk workers, common improvements can include chair type and positioning, the placement of key objects like keyboard and mouse, and limiting eye strain by customizing screen brightness, text size, and monitor height.

Butters cited a National Safety Council study that said the average workplace injury costs organizations $30,000 in direct costs and many times more than that in indirect losses. Tailoring the workspace to fit the worker can reduce the chance of that happening.

“It can save an organization a lot of money, just by looking out for its employees,” Butters said.

The findings surrounding sit-stand benefits continue to evolve. Some of the most recent studies have shown that optimal usage comes from frequently adjusting the work height. How often? There doesn’t seem to be a definitive answer yet. But frequent movement is the clearest benefit, and decreases in pain and discomfort have consistently been found among both healthy adults and those who experience low back pain or struggle with obesity. According to reporting from CNN and many other news outlets, multiple peer-reviewed studies in the past few years have established that “the risk of dying from sitting more than eight hours a day with no physical activity was much the same as the risk of death from obesity and smoking.”

Science has established a laundry list of health hazards caused by excessive sitting. The bottom line is that human bodies were not built to stay still.

“I really enjoy having the flexibility to sit or stand,” said Isaac Stanley, the DLA Disposition Services Finance Director and first-time sit-stand desk user who received his new equipment in June. “It has helped with my posture and allowed me to increase my overall activity level throughout the day.”

Stanley said he was compelled to make a change due to the well-worn chair bequeathed to him by his predecessor. He said it was increasingly giving him “more pain than support value,” so he requested an ergonomic assessment to help him try and lessen the discomfort. As the comptroller for DLA Disposition Services, he said it initially felt strange to ask the agency to buy him a new chair and desk when he already had one of each, but decided that “when there’s value to the employee, I think that it’s ultimately a good thing.”   

DLA Installations Support Facility Operations Specialist Scott Fox links employees with office furniture. He said since arriving in Battle Creek in mid-2016, his office has received 475 sit-stand, desk adjustment, or specialized chair requests.

“When I first arrived, the ergonomics program here had well over 40 different chair models and several different models of keyboard trays and monitor arms,” Fox said. “I reached out to our brother and sister DLA branches in Columbus and, coupled with Sharon’s input, I whittled it down to seven types of chairs, one model of sit-stand desk, monitor arms, and we incorporated the VARIDESK in as well, which provided an executive desk solution.

“DLA employees love the new ergonomics program,” he said. “I get compliments constantly on how pleased employees are at the quality, speed and ease of the products we provide.”

To schedule an ergonomic assessment or ask related questions about consultation and custom equipment possibilities, Battle Creek-based employees can send their information request to hdifc.ergonomics@dla.mil or visit the Occupational Health Office. Field site personnel are encouraged to reach out to their installation host organizations for more information on local occupational health services and offerings.