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Finding the perfect posture: Five workplace ergonomic tips

Jason Vasquez goes through an ergonomics assessment with Nikki Brauer.

Nikki Brauer often cringes when she sees people typing in magazine ads.

“It’s especially bad when they have their wrists angled above their elbows. That forces the bloodflow to travel up and creates inflammation,” she said. “I always hope they don’t make the models stay in that position for long.”

It’s part of Brauer’s job to notice the angle of hands, and how people sit when they work. As director of Health Promotion and Wellness at Illinois State, she oversees ergonomic assessments of faculty and staff members—meaning she assesses how people work and finds ways to eliminate stress and injury when working at their desks.

“Most people just do their job, and are not thinking about their postures until they have discomfort,” said Brauer, whose background is in exercise science and biomechanics. “Discomfort is a risk factor. It tells me something is not right.”

Employees at Illinois State can request ergonomic assessments as part of their job benefits. Brauer visits their workstations, and works with employees to make adjustments that could reduce discomfort and risk due to overuse of muscles, bad posture, and repetitive tasks.

Below are five common ways Brauer sees people not treating their bodies right when they work:

Elbows and wrists
Ignore those models in the ads, said Brauer. Elbows need to be aligned with the wrists when seated and typing. “Tilting the keyboard up is not a naturally anatomic position. It’s an awkward posture that can cause problems over a long period of time with muscles getting strained or constrained.”

You don’t want them too low, either. “If you sit or stand and have to reach down to your keyboard, you will lean in, and end up hunched over the keyboard.” We want to keep soft tissues (i.e. wrists and elbow area) off of the hard surfaces.

Back
Your mother may have told you to sit up in your chair when you were younger. She was right. “I always say keep your back in your chair, because it allows the weight distribution to stay in the seat,” said Brauer, who noted it also provides support for the back and shoulders. “The more support you give your shoulders, the more they can relax, and the muscles aren’t tense the entire time you work.

Feet
Feet need to be flat on the floor. “When feet are flat, they are grounded with the hip and knee, so you will be more likely to use the back of your chair for support,” said Brauer. She added people should have a two- to three-finger space between the edge of the seat and the calf. “You don’t want your leg touching the chair, because it can be a pressure point or what we call ‘contact stress’ that can press on the nerves and cause problems with swelling.”

Neck (Part 1)
Those with dual screens may be causing double trouble for their eyes and necks. “What happens sometimes is people place the screens off to each side, and force their necks to repeatedly swivel between the screens,” said Brauer. Instead, she suggested placing the two screens together, and making sure they are the same height to avoid constant swiveling.

“Repetition is the key word there. Anything that causes repetitive movement over time can be a risk factor,” she said. “Making the two screens together as one, your body is aligned in the center, with shoulders facing them. The goal is that eyes can move both ways, and not the neck.”

Neck (Part 2)
Talking on the phone for a long period of time? Brauer suggests a headset or using the speaker option. “We know that sometimes people have to be on a call and do work at the same time,” she said. “The worst thing you can do is craddle the phone in your neck. It takes the cervical spine or the neck out of alignment, and it lifts the shoulder up, creating an awkward posture.” Once or twice a day may not cause harm on short calls, she added. “It’s the hour-long calls, or the repetition we want to avoid.”

Brauer stays abreast of research in the ergonomics field. Along with new explorations of standing workstations, she said the most work is being done on the abundant use of devices such as tablets and phones. “You want to talk about repetition? Think about how many times, or how long, people are craning their necks over their tablets or phones,” she said.

The ergonomics portion of Brauer’s job is never to lecture or tell people how to work, she asserts. “I want to make the healthy choice, the easy choice for them,” she said. “I want them to sit well and think about their jobs, not pain in their wrists or necks. Our goals are to make people feel better and to lessen pain and discomfort.”

Faculty and staff can make an ergonomics appointments by contacting Brauer at (309) 438-8845 or nbgegel@ilstu.edu.