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Ten ways your office workstation could be harming your health

How many of you sit for part or most of the day at a computer workstation, either in the office or at home, or both?

How many of you have considered what harm this could be doing to your health?

Your back, your eyes, your upper limbs?

In this blog post, based on a presentation 4Sight I gave to 4Networking Preston on 19 July 2018, I want to talk to you about ten things that could be harming you or your employees’ health, and give you simple solutions to reducing the risk.

But first, a bit of background.

Back pain is incredibly common, with most of us suffering at some point in our lives.

Lower back pain a particular cause of complaint.

In the UK, an estimated 2.5 million people suffer from back pain every day.

According to figures from the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), treating back pain costs the NHS more than £1,000,000,000 per year.

Sitting makes the problem worse, but a large percentage of adults spend more than seven hours a day sitting down, with most of those hours spent in front of a computer in an office.

In brief, the biggest cause of back pain is poor posture.

Poor posture causes unnatural pressures on the discs in your spine.

Discs are the shock absorbers between each vertebrae in your back.

Damage your discs and your vertebrae can rub together and trap nerves in your spine.

If your work is office based, it’s important to learn how to sit correctly in order to give yourself the best chance of avoiding back pain.

However, it isn’t just the chair that is the problem – and it isn’t all about backs either.

This is my top ten list of things at or near your office workstation, that could, in some circumstances, cause you or your colleagues health issues.

As I go through the list, I will give a brief summary of how, simply they can be resolved.

This blog post just about hits the surface on an enormous subject, so if you are in doubt, or need further advice, please ask a health and safety practitioner or ergonomist for advice. If you are in pain, seek medical advice.

10 Location

Where exactly is your workstation? It’s location can easily cause stress issues, or other health issues.

Do you sit facing a window, particularly one that at certain times of year can be affected by the sun?

Is this causing glare, either directly or indirectly into your eyes?

Simple solution – if you cannot change the angle of your desk, your employer needs to provide blinds that work!

Is it either too hot or too cold?

Or do you feel a draught?

Are you in an open plan office, everyone is happy with the temperature except you?

Does it cause tension in the workplace?

Everyone has different temperature thresholds. It can easily be resolved by swapping desks, but this may need management intervention.

I love being in a cold environment, so for example would be happy to sit in the direct line of the air conditioning unit.

Generally cold is better than warm – as long as it is over 16C. It’s easier to put extra clothes on than take them off!

Is lighting or noise an issue?

Again people have different thresholds here, and there is plenty that can be done about it.

Similarly lack of space to move can be a major issue.

All these cause stress and anxiety in the modern office environment.

Stress – when you tense up, can cause back strain, headaches, etc.

9 The desk

Office desks come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. So do people.

If you are small in height you may not be able to put your feet on the floor to work at a standard desk.

This puts immense pressure on the lower back over time.

If you are tall in height, there may not be enough leg room, and this can lead to deep vein thrombosis, poor posture, poor backs.

Remember the law says that the workstation must fit the individual and not the individual fit the workstation.

Nowadays there are plenty of options to resolve this – the best being height adjustable desks.

The simple press of a button allows the height to be adjusted. These can also benefit all users of workstations.

Why sit for a full day – with a height adjusted desk they can stand for some of it.

This aids movement, is fantastic for posture, and will reduce long term musculo-skeletal issues.

Height adjustable desks are really coming down in price.

Desks have another more serious hazard. Research earlier this year found that the average office desk contained more than 400 times more harmful bacteria than your average toilet seat.

Toilets are cleaned regularly (well most are) – how often is your desk cleaned the same way? The research revealed that more than two thirds of office workers are at risk of sickness due to dirty desks.

Failing to clean regularly with antibacterial wipes can encourage dangerous bugs to breed, such as Helicobacter pylori, Staphylococcus aureus, E-coli and Pseudomonas aeruginosa, to name a few.

The average desktop harbours 20,961 germs per square inch and that’s in addition to 3,295 on the keyboard and 1,676 on a mouse and a staggering 25,127 on the phone.

8 Under the desk

How much legroom have you got? Can you put your feet flat on the floor or on a footrest?

Common items found under a desk are bags, boxes, loose cabling, floor boxes, electrical heaters, food.

If you cannot put your feet flat on the floor or on a footrest you cannot get a good posture.

Poor storage of items – most of which I can guarantee is hardly used is also a fire hazard.

Especially under desk heaters!

Tidy up – keep under desks clear.

Put documents on computers or the Cloud if you have no room for them!

Also, if you have a bag, handbag, briefcase, etc, store it on the desk not under it, or stand up to pick it up rather than twisting from the seat.

7 The mouse

The humble mouse – the type that doesn’t squeak! Developed in the late 1970s, their incorrect or over use has caused untold harm ever since.

When we hold a normal mouse we twist our wrists 90 degrees to an unnatural position and keep them there most of the day.

All this does is cause wrist injury and the potential for problems like carpal tunnel syndrome.

There are many simple solutions – the one I like is the upright mouse – either left handed or right handed. It needn’t be expensive, but it maintains the natural handshake position.

Similarly laptop built in mouse pads – they allow for the same arm and wrist twist. Simple solutions can reduce your sickness absence levels.

6 The mouse mat

In this I also include keyboard mats.

Many these days include the wonderfully bad invention of the wrist rest! 99.9% of the time they are not used for the purpose for which they were designed. And they cause lots of wrist injuries. The rests prevent the natural movement of the arm from the shoulders, meaning excess movement of the wrists when mousing or keyboarding.

Best solution – do away with them.

If necessary use a device like a mouse bean.

5 The keyboard

The humble keyboard – it should be designed for how you type.

Some people type with hands up, some down, some point hands inward, some outward, and some (but very few) straight.

The standard keyboard is designed for those who type straight! There are many many designs out there. Look at how you type and get a keyboard to suit you.

4 The telephone

Keyboards come in different sizes these days. We are never off them, and that includes when we are on the phone.

Much work is done on the phone or tablet – a very small keyboard. The more you use these the more you will injure yourself in the long term.

Studies are already showing that people in their twenties are suffering more from arthritis than ever before in their hands and fingers.

It isn’t rocket science to put two and two together.

Desk phones are just as bad.

People have died by trapping the main aorta in the neck while holding a phone headset to their ear and balancing it on their shoulder with a bent neck. Never do this!

Buy a headset. Also, like the desks, regularly clean your phone(s), and clear it from bacteria that get near to your ears and mouth!

3 The screen

How many of you use a laptop?

How many of you lean forward or look down to use one?

How many of you at your desk look down or up to view your screen?

The monitor and screen on an office workstation is the biggest cause of long term back and musculoskeletal disorders after lifting incorrectly.

Simply put set your chair correctly, then your monitor.

The top of the screen should be on eye level.

That way, when you sit correctly in your chair, you are looking across at your monitor. Get a separate keyboard and mouse on laptops and buy a laptop stand to achieve this.

Ensure the keyboard and monitor are directly in front of you and not to the side.

2 The chair

An office chair must by law have five castors that move freely. It must be height adjustable. It must have a back rest with lumbar support.

The better the chair the less likely you are of having problems. Ideally, they should have height adjustable arms (if you need arms), pump lumbar support, sliding seat, and adjustable back rest.

If you suffer upper back or neck problems then a high back support is recommended. NEVER buy anything with the work “Executive” in it. It is crap!

A decent office chair should set you back about £130 if you shop around.

Some people will need more specialist ones, which you should only buy after seeking advice from an independent professional ergonomist.

If you work from home, NEVER work with your lap top on your lap lounging on your settee!

1 The user - YOU

You have a duty to look after your own health and safety, including your back.

Do:

  • try to take regular breaks;

  • get up and stretch;

  • sit up comfortably in a chair that supports your lower back;

  • during computer work, ensure that you adjust your chair height so that your forearms are comfortably resting on the desk and your elbows are roughly at right angles;

  • vary your tasks, so that you are trying to avoid the same movements for prolonged periods using the same part(s) of your body.

  • co-operate with arrangements your employer introduces to reduce risks. This may be through systems or equipment in place for you to use or a system of reporting accidents, near misses or symptoms of ill health

  • Off work and suffering back pain?

  • Keep in regular contact with your employer to make them aware of your situation, and to discuss what adjustments might be needed once you are ready to return.

  • Discuss your needs with your employer and occupational health provider

  • If there is no occupational health provider available, your GP or safety representative may be able to discuss possible work restrictions or adjustments.

  • Suggest any practical workplace adaptations or alterations which might help you to cope while you return to full time working

What I have talked about in this blog post is, as I said at the beginning, a very brief summary of a huge subject.

I hope it has made you think about how you sit (or stand), how you you’re your equipment, and how, with the right equipment, you can be healthier and fitter at work.

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