Workplace Hazards and Ergonomics

The Straits Times released an article on 28 March 2014 announcing that Workplace health problems cost $3.5 billion a year. These health problems in contention are not fallen from a height or collapsing scaffolding but simply seemingly trivial problems such as back pain, stiff necks or numb wrists from normal office work activities. Since then, the Workplace Safety and Health Council have looked into workplace ergonomics to minimize health problems.
Workplace ergonomics is the science of designing the workplace, which includes the human-machine (tool), human-work environment and human-human interfaces to prevent injury and illness and to improve work performance. Poor worksite design leads to fatigued, frustrated and even end up causing hurt to workers. This naturally leads to lower productivity and frustration in the work environment.
Evaluating ergonomics in the workplace has a primary aim to optimize the environment for the workers in terms of their working conditions, physical work-loads and working postures. This journey will eventually lower the risk of human errors and musculoskeletal injuries, maximize efficiency and improve the quality of working life.

Workplace Ergonomics Risk Factors
Musculoskeletal injuries are associated with some risk factors that one may be exposed to while carrying out work activities. Along with personal factors such as physical limitations or existing health conditions, these factors lead to the development of musculoskeletal disorders (MSD). The primary workplace ergonomic risk factors to consider are:

1. High Task Repetition

Repetitive tasks, such as hourly or daily production targets and work processes, can be classified as ‘high task repetition’ when combined with other risk factors such as high force and/or awkward postures. This can contribute to the formation of MSD. A job is considered highly repetitive if the cycle time is 30 seconds or less.

2. Forceful Exertions

When high force loads are exerted on the human body, muscle effort to bear with the high force requirements increases, increasing associated fatigue which can lead to MSD.

3. Repetitive/Sustained Awkward Postures

Improper or awkward postures place unnecessary or excessive force on joints and overload the muscles and tendons around the affected joint. Our joints work most efficiently when they operate closest to the mid-range motion of the joint. When they are worked outside of this mid-range repetitively or for sustained periods of time and without adequate recovery time, the risk of developing MSD increases.

Ergonomic risk factors increase musculoskeletal fatigue and introduce barriers to productivity and human performance.

4. High-Stress environment

This is often neglected as an important risk factor for ergonomic injury. High stress due to timeliness of deadline and tasks or mental and emotional stress can take its toll on an individual. Without us knowing, the stress can cause sustained contraction of muscles especially in our neck, shoulders and back, constricting and reducing blood circulation to the related areas.

The contracted muscles increased loading pressure on the surrounding facet joints in the spine. This build-up of pressure and tension will result in pain over the susceptible area of the spine e.g neck or back. Over time, there is a tendency to want to stretch and crack the neck or back to give temporary relief.

What Are Musculoskeletal Disorders?

Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are muscle, tendon and nerve disorders, characterized by discomfort, impairment, disability, or persistent pains in joints, muscles, tendons or other soft tissues. They present as neck pain, back pain or joints and limb pain. They can also present as stiffness and tightness of the related strained areas. As mentioned above, risk factors such as forceful exertions, repetitive movements, awkward postures or even static postures can contribute to the development of MSDs.

MSDS are not limited to the industrial, commercial, healthcare, hospitality and service sectors. Employees in good offices and other workplaces are also at risk. The type of occupations ranges from machine operators, parts assembly operators, movers, nurses, warehouse operators, stock keepers, computer or visual display unit users, typists and musicians.

Fundamental Ergonomic Principles

Develop “ergo eyes” and start seeing the world through the lens of fundamental ergonomic principles. With this kind of vision, you will instantly be able to identify risk factors and potential injuries that mar your productivity at work.
Here are eight fundamental ergonomic principles to help you identify ergonomic risk factors.

Principle 1. Maintain Neutral Posture

When your body is aligned and balanced while either sitting or standing, the neutral posture is achieved. This means placing minimal stress on the body and keeping joints aligned. Minimizing stress applied to muscles, tendons, nerves, and bones also allows for maximum control and force production.

The opposite of a neutral posture is an “awkward posture”. Awkward postures put more stress on the worker’s musculoskeletal system.

The following are examples of neutral vs. awkward postures for the wrist, elbow, shoulder, and back.

Neutral and awkward wrist postures (source)

Neutral and awkward elbow postures (source)

Neutral and awkward shoulder postures (source)

Neutral and awkward back postures (source)

Principle 2. Work in the Power / Comfort Zone

This principle is very similar to maintaining the neutral posture.
The power zone or lifting is close to the body (see Figure 5), between mid-thigh and mid-chest height. This zone, also called the “handshake zone” or “comfort zone”, is defined as the area where the arms and back can lift the most with the least amount of effort.
Working within this zone ensures that you are working from proper heights and reaches, minimizing MSD risk factors and allows for more efficient and pain-free work.

Principle 3. Allow for Movement and Stretching

Working for long periods of time in a stationary position will cause fatigue. This is what is known as a static load. Some examples of experiencing a static load would be if you raise your hands over your head for 30 minutes, standing in the same position for 8 hours or writing with a pencil for a duration for 60 minutes straight. The cumulative effect of holding these seemingly stress-free positions over time can cause fatigue and discomfort.

Stretching will help relieve this. Simple stretching your legs, shoulders, back, fingers or wrist and maybe doing some squats will help. Stretching reduces fatigue, improves muscular balance and posture and improves muscle coordination. Stretching periodically throughout the work day will get blood to circulation and restore your energy.

Principle 4. Reduce Excessive Force

Exerting excessive force is one of the primary ergonomic risk factors. Especially in manual work, high force loads are imposed on the human body. This requires muscle effort and in turn, increases fatigue and risk of an MSD.

It may not be possible to avoid such duties all together but it is important to find ways to reduce that force borne by the body. This can be done by using mechanical assists, counterbalance systems, adjustable height lift tables, and workstations, powered equipment, and ergonomic tools that will reduce work effort and muscle exertions.

Principle 5. Reduce Excessive Motions

Repeating motion excessively is another one of the primary ergonomic risk factors. High task repetition, when combined with other risk factors such as high force and/or awkward postures, can contribute to the formation of MSD. Excessive or unnecessary motions should be reduced if possible. Otherwise, it is important to eliminate excessive force requirements and awkward postures. It may be helpful to consider a rotation of duties and breaks.

Principle 6. Minimize Contact Stress

Contact stress results from continuous contact or rubbing between hard or sharp objects/surfaces and sensitive body tissue, such as soft tissue of the fingers, palms, thighs, and feet. As a result, the pressure is localized at a small area of the body, which can inhibit blood, nerve function, or movement of tendons and muscles. This can happen simply when you rest wrists on the sharp edge of a desk or workstation while performing tasks.

Principle 7. Reduce Excessive Vibration

According to research and studies, regular and frequent exposure to vibration can lead to permanent adverse health effects. Sometimes at work, you may be in contact with a vibrating tool.

Hand-arm vibration can cause a range of conditions collectively known as hand-arm vibration syndrome (HAVS), as well as specific diseases such as white finger or Raynaud’s syndrome, carpal tunnel syndrome and tendinitis.

Principle 8. Provide Adequate Lighting

Poor lighting is a very common problem in the workplace. Dimly-lit work areas and glare can cause eye fatigue and headaches, and when there isn’t enough light, injuries happen more often. The solution is simple – provide adequate lighting. At a computer workstation, take steps to control screen glare, and make sure that the monitor is not placed in front of a window or a bright background.

Ergonomic Exercises and Stretches to do at the Office Cubicle

Common ailments such as back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis, rotator cuff injuries, tennis elbow, trigger finger and other aches and pains are preventable with a proper routine that involves ergonomic exercises at work.

Wrist Tilt Exercise

After a long session of typing on the keyboard, do the wrist tilt to gain momentum back into the wrist joint.
1. Begin with arm fully extended and palm facing downwards
2. Gently tilt wrist to the right
3. Hold for three to five seconds
4. Move wrist to the left and hold for another three to five seconds

Wrist Flexion Exercise

The wrist flexion exercise can also help to increase flexibility and rejuvenate joints.
1. Hold arm outward with the palm facing down
2. Catch the fingers of the extended hand with your opposite hand
3. Gently pull your fingers upwards until you feel a stretch on the underside of your wrist
4. Hold for 5 seconds, then release
5. Gently pull your fingers downwards until you feel a stretch on the front of your wrist
6. Hold for 5 seconds, then repeat on the other hand

Extended Finger Stretch

The extended finger is a simple and fuss-free exercise that can be done anytime and anywhere. It is a great method for stretching through the entire hand, which helps to alleviate stiff joints.
1. Begin with both hands extended and palms facing downward
2. Extend all fingers outward
3. Hold for 10 seconds, then slowly release
4. Bend all fingers at the knuckles
5. Hold for 10 seconds, then slowly release

Neck Relaxer

This exercise is helpful for rejuvenating blood flow and releasing tension in the neck or shoulders.
1. Begin by sitting at the edge of your chair with your feet placed firmly on the ground
2. Extend your arms out to either side of your torso
3. Drop your head slowly to the right, trying to touch your right ear to your right shoulder
4. Hold the stretch for 5 seconds
5. Return to the starting position, then repeat on the other side
6. Drop your head down so that your chin touches your chest
7. Gently rock your head to the light and roll to the right; this should take about 5 seconds
8. Return to the starting position




Head Turns

This is another way to alleviate tension in the muscles surrounding the neck after sitting and staring at the computer for long hours.

  1. Begin with your head facing forward
  2. Slowly turn your head to the right to look over the right shoulder
  3. Hold for 10 seconds
  4. Repeat on the opposite side


Overhead Shoulder Stretch

This is a good stretching exercise to release the tension in your neck, shoulders and upper back, all at once. Doing this also helps reposition the body into its proper postural alignment.

  1. Begin with your body facing forward
  2. Raise one arm directly overhead and bend it at the elbow
  3. Catch the elbow with your opposite hand
  4. Pull the upright arm towards the opposite side and hold for 10 seconds
  5. Repeat on the other side


Shoulder Roll


The shoulder roll is another simple exercise that can be done anywhere, to alleviate the tension in the shoulder.

  1. Begin by standing up from your cubicle and facing forward
  2. Slowly roll your shoulders backwards in a circular motion five times
  3. Slowly roll your shoulders forward in a circular motion five times
  4. Return to the starting position and relax the shoulders back down






Chest Stretch

We tend to sit in a hunched position at the desk, leading to sore chest and muscles. Stretch the chest to release the tension from time to time.

  1. Begin by standing upright with your hands at your sides
  2. Gently place your hands behind your head and interlock your fingers
  3. Squeeze your shoulder blades together
  4. Hold the stretch for 5-10 seconds, then relax and place your arms back down to your sides

Seated Back Curl

This simple exercise can be done while being seated on the chair, to release stiffness and tension in the legs and upper back.

  1. Begin seated at the front of your chair with your feet planted firmly on the ground
  2. Slowly lift one leg up and grasp your shin with both hands
  3. Bend forward and reach your nose to your knee
  4. Make sure to bend through your upper back!
  5. Relax back to the starting position
  6. Repeat on the other side

Low Back Stretch

It is helpful to sit up after a long duration at the desk to stretch the lower back. This releases tension along the spine and allows the blood to flow back into the spinal cord and allows the surrounding muscles to relax.

  1. Begin by standing up and facing forward
  2. Reach towards the ceiling until you feel a light stretch along your sides
  3. Hold the stretch for 10 seconds
  4. Reach higher until you feel an intense stretch along your sides
  5. Hold the stretch for 10 seconds, then relax

Back and Side Stretch

This can be done together with the low back stretch to continue releasing tension around the spinal cord and the obliques.

  1. Begin by standing tall and facing forward
  2. Reach your hands toward the ceiling and interlace your fingers
  3. Make sure to keep your elbows straight!
  4. Reach back as far as possible and then slowly bend to one side
  5. Hold the stretch for 10 seconds
  6. Repeat on the other side
  7. Relax your hands back to your sides

Standing Stretch

This exercise can be an extension to the two above. It helps release tension in the low back and glutes, especially after sitting for long periods.

  1. Begin by standing upright with your hands by your side
  2. Place both hands on your lower back, with your fingers pointed toward the floor
  3. Gently lean back into your hands while keeping your feet in place on the ground
  4. Hold the stretch for 5-10 seconds, then release

Calf Stretch

Our legs may become numb or stiff while sitting, and the calf stretch helps rejuvenate the muscles and increase blood flow to that area.

  1. Begin by standing tall and facing forward
  2. Place one foot a large step behind the other
  3. Slowly push into the front foot while keeping the other planted firmly on the ground
  4. Allow the front knee to bend
  5. Hold the stretch in the back leg for 10 seconds, then relax
  6. Bring both feet back to your midline, then switch feet
  7. Repeat the stretch on the other side for another 10 seconds, then relax

Leg Lift

In order to regain momentum and feeling in your quadriceps and hamstrings after sitting at a desk all day, practise the leg lift. In addition it helps to increase blood flow to the area and release tension in the knees and ankles.

  1. Begin by sitting at the edge of your chair, leaving a healthy gap between the chair and the cubicle desk.
  2. Keep both feet planted firmly on the floor and your knees bent at a ninety-degree angle
  3. Keep a straight leg and lift one leg off of the floor
  4. Feel a stretch along the back of your leg and hold for 10 seconds, then lower back down
  5. Repeat on the other side

Hip Stretch

The hips can get very tensed after long hours of sitting. The hip stretch helps to break up built-up tension in the hips.

  1. Begin by sitting on the edge of your chair with your feet firmly on the ground
  2. Lift one leg and cross it over the other right above the knee
  3. Grasp your bottom knee with your hand on the opposite side
  4. Gently apply pressure to the bottom leg while looking over your shoulder
  5. Feel the stretch along your lower back and hip and hold for 10 seconds
  6. Lower your legs back to the starting position
  7. Repeat on the other side

Benefits of Workplace Ergonomics

Your organisation will reap the numerous benefits of from implementing workplace ergonomics in areas beyond productivity.

1. Reduce costs

Costly MSDs can be prevented by reducing ergonomic risk factors. A study recorded that approximately $1 out of every $3 in workers are spent on compensation costs incurred due to MSDs. Thus, prevention will result in significant cost savings. Often, indirect costs are forgotten and it can cost up to twenty times of the direct cost of an injury.

2. Improve productivity

By encouraging good posture, reducing the chance of fatigue and over-exertion, work productivity becomes more efficient.

3. Improve quality

The quality of work is dependent on the ability to perform and that is directly related to the level of frustration and fatigued in workers. When workers work in optimal environments the quality of their work improves. The reverse is always true: when the task is too physically taxing, they will not perform at their best.

4. Improve employee engagement

The employees appreciate when their company puts in effort to ensure health and safety of their staff. This also affects the morale of the workers and can reduce turnover and decrease absenteeism.

5. Create a better safety culture

It is important for a company to commit towards employee’s health and safety. Building a strong safety culture has cumulative effects and employees are assured that they are welfare is taken care of.