As an occupational therapist, conducting office ergonomic assessments, I have come across many employees who are unable to position themselves ergonomically, because their body shape prevents them from assuming the positons, we are recommending.
In ergonomics, we typically set up people at their workstation so their elbows are at their sides bent at 90 degrees to access the keyboard and mouse, which are positioned in midline, either on the desk surface or on a keyboard tray. This positioning allows the employee to relax their shoulders and have their forearms supported on the arm rests of their chair while they type and mouse, while preventing reaching.
For employees who are "full-figured", and carry their weight in their stomachs and chest, keeping their elbows at their sides while typing and mousing becomes an impossible task. Instead, these folks have to reach around their larger chests or middles to access the keyboard and mouse which are certain to be positioned farther away from them, then their thinner coworkers, placing them at greater risk of musculoskeletal injury.
Reaching forward activates the muscles of the upper back and shoulders. These muscles work hard to sustain the forward reaching and eventually fatigue, resulting in discomfort and pain. By about 2 pm, these folks are wishing they had a personal assistant who is also a massage therapist.
- To get their hands in typing position in midline, they have to assume ulnar deviation at the wrist (awkward posture) which creates stress on the wrists, discomfort and pain along the outside boarder of the hands and sensitive underside of the wrists.
- With time, repetitive strain can develop in the wrists and without rest, change in position or treatment, the employee may become disabled and unable to work.
- Purchase a split keyboard to allow the wrists to access the keyboard in a neutral position, preventing the ulnar deviation. There are many brands of these available.
- Separate the two keyboard panels so they are positioned in line with the arm rests of the chair, away from midline to allow the forearms to be positioned on the armrests while typing, if possible.
- Position the split keyboard close to the front edge of the desk to prevent reaching forward.
- It is important for the employee to take Movement Breaks, Stretch throughout the day, as well as drink lots of water.
Just so you know, skinny folks also have other ergonomic challenges, so do tall folks, and so do short folks...so who's left? The point here is that we want to get people working as comfortable as possible, with the least amount of stress to the body. Guidelines for ergonomic positioning are just that, guidelines. Ergonomics is about fitting the environment to the individual, and if this helps to reduce someone's pain, then we all are headed down the right path! What's your ergo issue?
Marnie Courage, OT Reg (MB)