Rules aim to create comfort

Every weekday morning, approximately half of all working American adults head off to jobs where they will spend the next eight hours sitting at a desk.

While these jobs are not "dangerous" in the typical sense of the word, the need to create safe environments for millions of office workers has become an issue, not just of productivity, but of law.

First-time federal rules governing ergonomic standards, designed to prevent injuries on the job, kicked in Tuesday. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), created the standards to "address concerns about an increase in repetitive stress injuries."

Preventing health problems at work can be as easy as adding a book under a computer monitor, OSHA notes.

Other ergonomic interventions include adjusting the height of working surfaces to reduce long reaches and awkward postures, and putting work supplies and equipment within comfortable reach.

OSHA estimates that the cost of compliance will be about $4.2 billion a year. But the agency estimates employers will save $9.1 billion annually by eliminating absences, treatment, and other costs associated with repetitive stress injuries.

In fact, many companies are already going "way beyond" what is required, says David Cochran, professor of Industrial Engineering at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, who spent the last three years working on the new OSHA standards.

In all sectors, he notes, employers realize that if workers can do their jobs with more comfort and less fatigue, "they are going to be better employees and more productive."

From a design perspective, "the goal of ergonomics is to design environments, tools, and tasks that fit the people," notes Noe Palacios, a director of User Centered Design at Steelcase Inc., the largest designer and manufacturer of office furniture.

In the past, he says, this goal was accomplished by designing furniture to fit what was considered a typical male or female. "But what we've found out is that we're all so different - your arms could be longer or legs could be longer.

"The idea is to design products and workstation layouts that are very flexible and adjust to the individual," he adds. Employees should be able to personalize the space and change it based on the tasks they're doing.

The results may include desks that rise to standing levels, or move to accommodate teams or individual work; storage spaces that may be configured horizontally or vertically; and chairs that adjust to contours of different body shapes.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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