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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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Supportive ergonomics positioning is essential when considering accommodations for a workplace environment in order to manage functional limitations such as fatigue, pain, weakness, range of motion limitations, etc. Incorrect positioning can limit an individual’s ability to complete their required vocational tasks, and it can be a key factor in determining the length of time for which they are able to keep working. Implementation of proper ergonomic positioning allows the workspace to be tailored to the individual user which can improve the safety, efficiency and quality with which the individual performs their work-related tasks.

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. As each worker and workspace is different, it is difficult to provide concrete positioning recommendations. The following are general topics that may need to be considered:

1. Seating

In the most ideal of circumstances, individuals should be encouraged to change positions often and avoid maintaining static postures for extended periods of time such as sitting or standing for too long. Ideally, alternating work postures while being able to work ergonomically from all positions is preferred. However, being able to work from a variety of positions is not always an option for workers. As such, it is important to understand how best to work from all working positions and what equipment may be beneficial to use.

Seating needs will vary depending on the specifics of the work environment and the required work tasks. 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, if an individual’s job requires them to work in a variety of environments completing different kinds of tasks, they may require a variety of different seating options. It is important to utilize a seating system with adjustable features so that the seating system 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, as well as 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, such as office workers, an ergonomic office chair may be a suitable seating option. Some general 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 or on a footing.
  • 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 typically 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. 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 stool.

Drafting chairs, which can also be referred to as industrial chairs or drafting stools, are available with a variety of features and are typically used by individuals that work in a seated position for extended periods of time at workstations that are at a higher height. Ergonomic stools come in a variety of styles and designs, such as saddle stools and perching stools. These can be used by individuals that typically work in a standing position who require some occasional sitting relief. Stools can assist with reducing the strain and tension on the back and lower extremities as a result of standing for extended periods of time.

When considering a drafting chair or stool, some general considerations include:

  • Seat – 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. Seats are often available in different shapes (for example, saddle), sizes, and materials (for example, vinyl, fabric, medical grade materials, memory foam cushioning, etc.). For instance, if there is a chance of spilling fluids or liquids onto the seat, it might be more beneficial to choose a vinyl material over fabric. The shape and cushioning should be considered based on the client’s needs and comfort level.
  • 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, if a stool is being considered, is the individual going to “perch” on the stool or are they intending to be fully seated on the stool? 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, locking casters may want to be considered 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 base 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 using the stool or drafting chair. 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 while seated. A “foot ring” or “foot bar” is available for some stools and drafting chairs and provides a base of support for an individual to place their feet on while seated.

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 where the user’s neck, back and upper extremities are supported. Correct positioning should be considered on a case-by-case basis. Some general guidelines may include:

  • Elbows at a 90-degree angle
  • Forearms supported by armrests
  • Elbows relaxed when using the keyboard and mouse

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:

  • Put 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.

For additional guidance on how to identify and solve problems with computer workstations, see “How to Make Your Computer Workstation Fit You” from Work Safe BC.

Next steps:

Adaptive technology assessment