Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=198849
Story Retrieval Date: 8/23/2014 12:20:13 PM CST

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Rearrange to change: Creating a healthier work environment

by Rian Ervin
Jan 19, 2012


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Rian Ervin/MEDILL

Improper workplace organization can lead to body distortion, straining and discomfort, experts say.

Create a comfortable and healthy workspace using suggestions from Andrew Carlstrom, an ergonomics and job-analysis program manager.

1. Your computer monitor should sit at eye-level, or an inch or two higher. Your elbows should be able to relax at 90-degree angles at your side.

2. Adjust your chair to sit with your feet flat on the floor. If this is not possible, use a footrest.

3. Keep your hips at an angle greater than 90 degrees to increase blood flow to your legs.

4. For every hour of sedentary work, take a short break to stretch at your desk, stand up, or briefly walk around.

5. Consider using ergonomic software. These programs stop your computer at timed intervals and lead you through scheduled breaks, exercises and stretching.
Sarah Neukom’s job: Unlimited vacation days, Chicago’s only officially coded tree house, a “green” room with a cardboard conference table and swings for seats, a zip line and an in-office bar. In addition to hard work, this is everyday life at Red Frog, an innovative event-planning company.

“Red Frog is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, given the caliber of the people who work here, the environment and the freedom we have in terms of personal decisions,” Neukom said.

Falling from the zip line may be the last worry in a Red Frog employee’s mind, but office hazards are a reality for everyone in the workforce.

Job-related injuries and illness cost $250 billion in 2007, a recent the University of California, Davis study found.

Don’t be misled by this eye-popping figure. Nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses in private-industry actually declined by 30 percent from 2003 to 2010, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

While the average 9 - 5 worker may not worry about injuries from falling objects, electrocution, or a nail gun, experts say the spread of germs and physical hazards are two factors that affect the daily health of office employees.

“Don’t go to work if you’re sick,” said Dr. Alan Hauser, an associate professor of microbiology and immunology at Northwestern University. “Viruses and bacteria can be introduced in the work area from person-to-person contact,” he said.

Bathrooms, doorknobs and handshakes are additional hot spots for exchanging viruses and bacteria, said Hauser. “The most important thing to do is to be sure to wash your hands with soap and water,” he said.

While a contagious cold may cripple an office in a day, people generally suffer from more common afflictions, such as excessive tension and pain in their shoulders, back and neck, workplace experts say.

“There is now much more awareness about workplace health and safety,” said Andrew Carlstrom, an ergonomics and job-analysis program manager.

Ergonomics, which in this context means the science of fitting workplace conditions to job demands to increase productivity and avoid illness and injury, has become a buzzword, said Carlstrom.

“Companies are becoming aware that the cost of a $15,000 low back injury is worth the cost of a $700 ergonomic chair,” he said.

The No. 1 risk factor of office work is being sedentary, said James Herzog, an occupational therapist and ergonomics-program consultant.

“Any time you have muscle tissue that isn’t moving, you produce metabolic waste. It is kind of like a backed-up sink. Nothing is flowing away, and nothing is coming in,” he said.

Carlstrom said people tend to set up workstations improperly, and this leads to body distortion, straining and discomfort.

“The human body is not meant to sit still for long periods of time. You can put someone in the most expensive chair in the world, but they can still find way to contort themselves into improper positions,” he said.

Herzog says the hardware to create a better work environment exists, and he is now seeing a trend towards improving the psychosocial relationship between employers and employees.

“We have fixed the obvious in terms of equipment means, and now we need to address the systemic issues,” he said.Sarah Neukom’s job: Unlimited vacation days, Chicago’s only officially coded tree house, a “green” room with a cardboard conference table and swings for seats, a zip line and an in-office bar. In addition to hard work, this is everyday life at Red Frog, an innovative event-planning company.

“Red Frog is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, given the caliber of the people who work here, the environment and the freedom we have in terms of personal decisions,” Neukom said.

Falling from the zip line may be the last worry in a Red Frog employee’s mind, but office hazards are a reality for everyone in the workforce.

Job-related injuries and illness cost $250 billion in 2007, a recent the University of California, Davis study found.

Don’t be misled by this eye-popping figure. Nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses in private-industry actually declined by 30 percent from 2003 to 2010, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

While the average 9 - 5 worker may not worry about injuries from falling objects, electrocution, or a nail gun, experts say the spread of germs and physical hazards are two factors that affect the daily health of office employees.

“Don’t go to work if you’re sick,” said Dr. Alan Hauser, an associate professor of microbiology and immunology at Northwestern University. “Viruses and bacteria can be introduced in the work area from person-to-person contact,” he said.

Bathrooms, doorknobs and handshakes are additional hot spots for exchanging viruses and bacteria, said Hauser. “The most important thing to do is to be sure to wash your hands with soap and water,” he said.

While a contagious cold may cripple an office in a day, people generally suffer from more common afflictions, such as excessive tension and pain in their shoulders, back and neck, workplace experts say.

“There is now much more awareness about workplace health and safety,” said Andrew Carlstrom, an ergonomics and job-analysis program manager.

Ergonomics, which in this context means the science of fitting workplace conditions to job demands to increase productivity and avoid illness and injury, has become a buzzword, said Carlstrom.

“Companies are becoming aware that the cost of a $15,000 low back injury is worth the cost of a $700 ergonomic chair,” he said.

The No. 1 risk factor of office work is being sedentary, said James Herzog, an occupational therapist and ergonomics-program consultant.

“Any time you have muscle tissue that isn’t moving, you produce metabolic waste. It is kind of like a backed-up sink. Nothing is flowing away, and nothing is coming in,” he said.

Carlstrom said people tend to set up workstations improperly, and this leads to body distortion, straining and discomfort.

“The human body is not meant to sit still for long periods of time. You can put someone in the most expensive chair in the world, but they can still find way to contort themselves into improper positions,” he said.

Herzog says the hardware to create a better work environment exists, and he is now seeing a trend towards improving the psychosocial relationship between employers and employees.

“We have fixed the obvious in terms of equipment means, and now we need to address the systemic issues,” he said.