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  • Writer's pictureKaren O'Keefe OTR/L

Ergonomics: A Complete Overview

Updated: Jul 20, 2020

Ergonomics is all about alignment
Ergonomics is all about proper body alignment

The study of ergonomics took off in the 1760’s as people transitioned from working on the farm into factories.¹ Today we are facing another transition in the field of ergonomics.

As companies are pivoting with advancements and changes in our modern society, our previous, comprehensive ergonomics overview is also shifting.

Now, more than ever, it is extremely important to understand ergonomics and how we can improve our workplace.

Ergonomics overview

Ergonomics is the science of fitting a person to their job in order to maximize performance and efficiency while minimizing injury and costs. This science includes a thorough assessment of an employee in their place of work.

It then requires creativity in order to design the appropriate workstation and tools. And to provide long lasting benefit, continued re-assessment of the workstation is recommended in order to keep up with any changes in the workplace.

Really, any type of work has the potential to cause injury, whether you have a job that consists of repetitive movements, heavy physical labor, or sustained posturing. But, it is the application of ergonomics that will mitigate the risk of developing injury and pain, decreasing costs to the employer, and in return, increasing productivity and satisfaction in the workplace.²

Why does repetitive movements, heavy physical labor, or sustained posturing cause injury?

In this general ergonomics overview, we will briefly discuss each of these topics, but we will go deeper in each of these in future posts.

Repetitive movements

Examples of careers with repetitive movements would include working on a factory or production line, as a cashier at a grocery store, or as a typist. These repeated movements are especially hazardous when they involve use of the same body part, moving in the same direction, over and over again.

This causes an increase in stress and strain to muscles, tendons, ligaments, bursas, and joints of that particular region, leading to chronic inflammation and the potential breaking down of these tissues.

If a workplace is not set up with the appropriate ergonomics while utilizing sufficient rest breaks, injuries are bound to happen with repetitive movements.

An assessment and ergonomics overview of a job with repetitive movements would include:

  • Identifying the appropriate work to rest ratio

  • Education on the concept of micro-breaks

  • Adjusting the pace that the employee is working at

  • Setting up the workstation to minimize stress and strain to the body

  • Modifying movements, such as changing size of grip, how far someone has to bend over or reach up, or frequently changing the direction someone is moving in order to provide variety to the repetitive movement

Heavy Physical Labor

Construction workers, fire fighters, and commercial drivers are just a few examples of careers involving heavy physical labor. This type of work can cause injury if the weight or load is more than someone can handle.

Plus, if someone has poor body mechanics while doing heavy physical labor, especially without adequate rest breaks, the chance of injury is even higher. For example, this can include poor body mechanics with bending, lifting, reaching, pushing, and pulling movements.

If a worker has to bend over to lift 100 pounds of material, without adequate strength, range of motion, and education on lifting patterns, this person runs the risk of injuring their low back, especially if this is done frequently throughout the day.

An assessment and ergonomics overview of a job with heavy physical labor would include:

  • Breaking down movement patterns to ensure the appropriate body mechanics are being performed

  • Ensuring employees have adequate strength and range of motion for the job

  • Minimizing load by using external devices for assistance, or partnering for heavy lifts

  • Taking appropriate rest breaks

Sustained Posturing

This type of injury is becoming more and more common in the modern workplace. Sustained posturing occurs with most office and desk jobs. Even with the advancements into standing desks, sustained postures while working on a computer can be detrimental to one's health and productivity.

Sustained posturing is a major issue and leads to injury because our bodies are not meant to be in the same position for hours on end. In doing so, our postural stabilizing muscles become fatigued, different areas of our bodies adapt and become tight, while other areas become weak.

Imagine sitting at a desk for 8 hours a day. It is easy to see how your hips could get tight from sitting. Your mid back and neck stretch forwards into an awkward posture in order to see the screen once your eyes start to fatigue. And your shoulders round forwards as your arms are out in front of you typing or clicking for most of the day.

An assessment and ergonomics overview of a position with sustained posturing would include:

  • Ensuring the workstation, including items such as the computer screen, mouse, keyboard, desk, and chair are appropriately sized and positioned for each individual employee

  • Possible use of standing, treadmill, or bike desk option

  • Implementing adequate rest breaks and education on the concept of micro-breaks

Ergonomic Goals

Obviously, the number one goal of ergonomics is to minimize risk of injury. With this goal, employer costs are reduced, productivity and efficiency increase, and employees are more satisfied.

To achieve this goal, all types of workplaces must be assessed and modified for each individual worker. A one size fits all approach will not work.

Think of ergonomics as a way to stop problems before they arise. Application of the information from this ergonomics overview provides you with the first steps in identifying how you can possibly incorporate the science of ergonomics into your workplace, whether you are a small company, an independent contractor, or a large corporation, every workplace will benefit from the application of ergonomics.



Karen O’Keefe, OTR/L has combined her passion for Hand Therapy with the rewards Ergonomics can bring to her clients over the past 32 years. Co-founder of Exeter Therapy Associates and now Access Sports Medicine, she has specialized in Ergonomics in the workplace, along with musculoskeletal and neurological injuries.

Karen is equally passionate about hiking, biking and cooking. She lives with her husband in Kittery, Maine.

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