American adults employed full time now work nearly 47 hours a week. Long days and repetitive tasks can result in injury. Learn about ergonomics, plus ways to manage your own health.
Carson Demers has been a physical therapist for 24 years, with 13 of those at Kaiser Permanente. Based at the San Francisco Medical Center, Demers has won a workplace award for his creation of a level one ergonomic training program now used throughout Kaiser Permanente Northern California. He trains employees in how to conduct desktop ergonomic evaluations, and has even written a book on ergonomics for knitters.
Hear from him on the causes of — and relief for — repetitive stress injuries.
What are ergonomic injuries and how do they happen?
Ergonomics studies how people work within an environment. Its goal is to optimize their efficiency, productivity, and safety. Ergo injuries are the result of an imbalance of external forces on the body’s tissue. These forces are called risk factors and include forceful exertion or strain, repetition, awkward or sustained postures, contact pressure, and exposure to heat or cold, light, sound, and vibration. So, think of how we might become stiff and numb when sitting in a crouched position, for example. Or how glare from an overhead light may cause us to squint and strain our eyes. Or using more force than needed to depress the keys of your laptop is extra and unnecessary work for your muscles.
Is it purely these risks, or can people have a propensity for injuries?
Personal anatomy comes into play because we can have anatomical variances. For example, a person might have very developed finger flexor tendons which crowd the space in the carpal tunnel. Stressful situations at, or outside of, work can contribute to injury since we’re less attentive to our exposure to risk factors when we’re under stress. Stress also increases cortisol levels, which when too high over time increase sensitivity to pain.
What are the avoidances you hear — and what are your responses?
One is, ‘It can’t happen to me.’ That’s not true. Every person’s body experiences external forces and, if the forces get too much for the body to handle, injury results. I also hear, ‘I have done it forever and never had a problem.’ But that’s the same argument a 40-year smoker might use when he says, ‘Sure I smoke, but my lungs are fine.’ Finally, people say, ‘I will just work through the pain.’ But that is never a solution because pain is a signal that something is wrong.
What are the basic steps to address injuries?
The first thing is to be aware of your body and your surroundings. If you feel discomfort or pain, don’t ignore it. Acknowledge it, stop what you are doing, try to find the cause, and make modifications. I believe in ergonomic assessment before one gets hurt, but most certainly when something is wrong. If discomfort is related to your work, please tell your manager and, if needed, employee health department. For non-work related discomfort, see your primary care physician.
The best thing is prevention. Tips include changing your position and joint angles frequently so your muscles are exposed to different lengths. One way to do this if you sit to do your work is to stand up every 20 minutes. You don’t have to stand for a long time, just enough to unkink you knees and relax your spine. Sometimes people will do very vigorous stretches. Please understand that from the perspective of a muscle, stretching is still work. So be gentle.
Finally, you can reduce your risk of injury through faulty ergonomics by being strong and well. This includes regular exercise that strengthens your core muscle groups, keeps you flexible, and improves your cardiovascular system; balanced nutrition, and good, restful sleep.