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Positional requirements (ergonomics)

Laura Bergstrom, MSc. O.T. – Occupational Therapist, Neil Squire Society

Ms. Laura Bergstrom received her undergraduate degree in health sciences from Simon Fraser University in 2009 and her MSc. in Occupational Therapy from the University of Alberta in 2015. In 2015, she obtained the Assistive Technology Professional designation through the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America (RESNA). As an occupational therapist in the Solutions Department of the Neil Squire Society, Ms. Bergstrom specializes in workplace accommodations and provides a variety of services, including assistive technology and ergonomic assessments, worksite assessments, and education for organizations. Her practice is centered on assisting clients through a collaborative and interactive process to participate meaningfully in their everyday occupations.

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Implementing proper ergonomic positioning is often a key component of successful workplace accommodations. Ergonomics refers to fitting the job tasks and environment to an individual which should result in a workspace that is tailored to an individual’s specific needs. Appropriate ergonomic positioning can improve the safety, efficiency and quality with which the individual performs their work-related tasks and can help manage potential workplace barriers such as fatigue, pain, weakness, range of motion limitations, etc. all of which can affect an individual’s ability to perform their job tasks.

In the most ideal of circumstances, individuals should change positions frequently throughout the day and avoid maintaining static postures for extended periods of time. However, being able to work from a variety of positions is not always an option. As such, it is important to be well informed of ergonomic guidelines and equipment items that could be implemented to improve an individual’s ergonomic positioning at work. Determining appropriate ergonomic positioning and accommodations is often one of the most challenging yet important aspects of workplace accommodations. As such, an assessment performed by a qualified professional is strongly recommended.

The following are general topics that may need to be considered:

1. Seating

Seating needs will vary depending on the individual’s specific needs, the work environment and the work tasks being performed. Recommendations should always be considered on a case-by-case basis as everyone’s needs and working environments are unique. For example, a seating system that is appropriate for an office worker may be quite different from what is appropriate for a dental hygienist. In addition, a seating system that is appropriate for two individuals working in the same office performing similar job tasks may also be quite different as one worker might be 6’5” and the other worker might be 5’5”. Furthermore, if an individual’s job requires them to work in a variety of environments completing different kinds of tasks, they may require several different seating options.

It is important to utilize a seating system with adjustable features so that it can be personalized to an individual’s specific needs. Seating adjustments that are important to consider include, but are not limited to, customizable seat height, seat pan depth, backrest height and angle, and armrest height and position. Correct positioning should always be considered on a case-by-case basis as everyone’s needs and working environments are unique.

For jobs that are completed primarily from a seated position at a standard height workstation, an ergonomic office chair may be a suitable seating option. Some general positioning guidelines to consider when sitting in an office chair include but are not limited to:

  • Feet should be supported by being placed flat on the floor, on a footrest.
  • Knees should be at approximately 90-degree angle with thighs parallel to the floor.
  • Back should be making contact with the backrest of the chair.
  • Hips and thighs should be supported by the seat with a 2–4 finger-width space between the edge of the seat and back of the knees.
  • Lumbar support should fit the natural curve of the lower back.
  • Armrests should support forearms with shoulders relaxed and elbows at a 90- to 100-degree angle.
  • Chair adjustment controls should be easily accessible to the user.

For jobs that are completed from a standing position or jobs that require an individual to work at a taller height range, such as a retail worker, industrial worker or cashier, an office chair may not be a suitable solution as the cylinder height may not adjust high enough. Extended periods of standing may result in discomfort in the lower extremities and back, swelling in the legs and feet, unnecessary fatigue, etc. As such, it may be beneficial to consider using alternative seating options, such as a drafting chair or ergonomic stool, to enable the individual to alternate between sitting and standing positions.

Drafting chairs are available with a variety of features and can be used by individuals who would like to work in a seated position for extended periods of time at workstations that are at a higher height. Some drafting chairs are available with backrests and armrests to provide this type of support if required. They can often look like an ergonomic office chair with a much higher cylinder. It is important to ensure that there is a foot support attached to the chair so that the feet can be fully supported. It is also important to determine whether the individual is able to safely transfer on and off the seat at the higher height range or if they require a platform or step. Ergonomic stools are another example of an alternative seating option and come in a variety of styles and designs, such as saddle stools and perching stools. These can be used by individuals who typically work in a standing position and require some occasional sitting relief. Most stools do not have back or arm support, making it important to consider whether an individual requires this type of support before recommending this type of equipment.

Seat options should be considered on a case-by-case basis depending on the needs of the individual and the environment in which they will be working. When considering a drafting chair or stool, some general considerations include:

  • Seat angle – Seat angle adjustments should be considered on a case-by-case basis depending on the positioning that is required for the individual to access their working materials. For example, is the individual intending to “perch” on the stool or are they intending to be fully seated? If they are going to be perching, they may prefer to have a seat that has a forward tilt. Drafting chairs can also come equipped with a seat angle adjustment, which some clients may require to improve their hip angle and comfort levels while seated.
  • Base – Base options should be considered on a case-by-case basis. For instance, stools can come equipped with a stationary base or a pivot base that offers continuous pivoting movement. Portability should also be considered if the drafting chair or stool needs to be moved. Consideration should be given to the weight of the drafting chair or stool and whether casters are required. If there are casters, consider locking ones for safety and stability.
  • Cylinder height – Cylinder height should be considered based on the individual’s height and the height of the work surfaces they will be working at to ensure that the cylinder will have the correct height range to accommodate their needs.
  • Backrest support – Backrest support should be considered on a case-by-case basis depending on the individual’s needs, the type of work they are completing, and the length of time for which they will be seated. It is important to determine whether a back angle adjustment or backrest height adjustment are also required.
  • Foot support – Foot support should be considered if the individual’s feet are unable to make contact with the floor.

Another piece of equipment to consider if an individual is standing stationary for extended periods of time is an anti-fatigue mat. Anti-fatigue mats provide a softer surface to stand on which can help to reduce back and lower extremity strain resulting from extended periods of standing.

2. Keyboard and mouse

The keyboard and mouse should be positioned in an easily accessible location directly in front of the user at the appropriate height, angle and distance with the user’s neck, back and upper extremities fully supported. The individual should not be required to extend their arms, twist their torso, raise their shoulders or reach out to the side to access the keyboard and mouse.

Correct positioning should be considered on a case-by-case basis. Some general guidelines may include:

  • Elbows at approximately a 90-degree angle
  • Forearms supported by armrests
  • Shoulders relaxed.
  • Wrists should be in a neutral position (avoid bending the wrists up or down or angling the wrists right or left).
  • Wrists should not be resting on a wrist/palm rest while keyboarding as this can place pressure on the carpal tunnel of the wrist resulting in discomfort.

3. Monitor(s)

Correct positioning should be considered on a case-by-case basis. Some general guidelines may include:

  • Maintaining a neutral head position, meaning, at your computer, keep your head balanced directly over your spine as much as possible.
  • If using one monitor, place it directly in front of the user at approximately an arm’s length away.
  • If using dual monitors, they may need to be placed slightly farther back.
  • Dual monitors should be angled with the far right and left ends of the monitors angled towards the user and the centre positioned farther back to form a “V” shape.
  • The top third of the text should be in an individual’s direct line of sight.

4. Telephone

Correct positioning should be considered on a case-by-case basis. Some general guidelines may include:

  • Avoid holding the telephone between the ear and shoulder.
  • Use a headset if the telephone is used frequently.

5. Frequently used materials or equipment

Correct positioning should be considered on a case-by-case basis. Some general guidelines may include:

  • Place frequently used materials and equipment within reach.
  • Choose materials with ergonomic features, such as pens with cushion grips and low-pressure staplers.

6. Paper documents

Correct positioning should be considered on a case-by-case basis. Some general guidelines may include:

  • Place frequently referred to documents in a document holder.
  • Place filing cabinets high enough to reduce bending or reaching.
  • Choose filing cabinet drawers that are easy to open and close.

Addressing these areas will assist the assessor and individual with identifying areas of concern, determining whether suitable adjustments can be made to current equipment or whether alternative equipment is required.

Next steps:

Adaptive technology assessment