I Think, Ergo I Stand

By Bara Vaida

imageEvery week, ergonomics expert July Landis walks into offices and observes workers slouching in their chairs and leaning over keyboards with hunched shoulders. Some are straining their necks to view too-high computer monitors and others are awkwardly twisting their bodies to grab their phone or read documents.

She sees recipes for pain.

“There are all kinds of ways that people, without realizing it, are doing things to injure themselves at work,” says Landis, president and CEO of Ergo Concepts, a suburban Germantown, Maryland ergonomics consulting firm hired by large and small companies to create pain-free office environments.

Every year, about 1 million people strain their necks, hurt their backs or sprain their wrists so badly that they need serious medical attention and can’t return to work for days, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That lost work time and the medical costs relating to treating disabling workplace injuries cost U.S. businesses more than $20 billion in 2011, according to a 2013 report by Liberty Mutual Insurance, a Boston-based company that analyzes federal ergonomics data to create its national Workplace Safety Index.

Further, new research shows that the amount of time people spend sitting is causing injury to their health. Adults who sit for more than four hours a day, compared with those who sit for just two hours, have a 50 percent increased risk of death from any cause and a 125 percent increased risk of health problems related to cardiovascular disease, says James Levine, a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic.

“Sitting is the new smoking,” says Landis.

Whiles some smaller companies and single-individual-run businesses may feel they don’t have the money or time for ergonomics, there are quantifiable savings, says Bruce Lyon, director of risk control at the Hays Companies, an employee-benefits brokerage firm based in Kansas City, Missouri. For every $1 that a company spends on workplace safety, its return on investment is about $4 to $6, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) estimates.

“Employers and employees often don’t think of sitting as dangerous,” says Lyon. “But if you are static and sitting in an incorrect posture for an extended period, that constricts blood flow. Eventually, the restriction causes soft tissue damage, and for some it can be debilitating.”

To prevent injuries, Landis, a physical therapist by training, and her staff help companies purchase ergonomically correct office equipment and provide evaluation and training to employees. They teach how body positions and daily work activities can lead to the development of chronic pain.

“There is no one-size-fits-all method of pieces of equipment,” says Landis, whose company has consultants in 45 U.S. cities. “You have to evaluate each person’s height, weight and body type, whether they are right- or left-handed, the amount of time they are sitting in front of a computer, and then, through a collaborative discussion, tailor a solution to that person.”

Consistent themes do arise. For example, in a recent evaluation visit to the American Institutes for Research (AIR) in Washington, D.C., Landis worked with Sohni Anand and Chris Graham. Anand suffered from chronic, tingling neck pain, while Graham had occasional lower back pain. After talking and watching while they worked, Landis spotted the problems: incorrectly positioned chairs, computer monitors, keyboards and feet. She gave both AIR employees lessons on using and positioning their equipment, and then offered advices on ways to stay active during the day.

A half hour after Landis had made the fixes, Anand said, “I already feel better.”

Originally published in the Costco Connection, August 2014.