When you think of workers who are prone to sustaining injuries on the job, a desk worker may not be the first example that comes to mind.
Sure, factory workers, rig workers, coal miners, and construction workers are at risk for hurting themselves while performing demanding physical work — but what about accountants, administrative assistants, or other professionals who mostly work before a computer and behind a desk?
Desk workers are in fact at risk for an occupational injury or illness that at the very least is uncomfortable and at worst, painful and disruptive to day-to-day life. These workers typically sustain repetitive strain injuries (RSI) related to typing and sitting still most of the day.
Carpal tunnel syndrome — or swelling inside the wrist — is probably the most well-known RSI. Other injuries that commonly afflict desk workers include:
- Tendinitis — tears in soft tissue connecting bones and muscles;
- Myofascial damage — swelling and discomfort in overworked muscles; and
- Cervical radiculopathy — compression of cervical disks.
Reducing the Risk of RSI
You may already be feeling the effects of an RSI and want to nip it in the bud. Or perhaps your co-worker has developed a bad case of carpal tunnel and you don’t want to be burdened with the same ailment.
Here are some steps to make yourself more comfortable at work, reduce your risk of developing RSI, and mitigate symptoms:
Step 1: Develop a natural, supported posture
To begin, sit down comfortably, much like you would when behind the wheel of a car. Both your feet will be flat on the floor, and you will lean back slightly so that your shoulders relax and do not roll forward. Your pelvis will be positioned under you to allow your spine to stack properly.
Once you have found this natural posture, you can start building an ergonomic workstation that helps keep you pain free.
Step 2: Place your keyboard and mouse
Building on your good sitting posture, you will want your arms at a 90-degree angle and your elbows at your sides. Arrange your keyboard and mouse on your desk to allow for this optimal arm position. This will go far in reducing tension in the muscles throughout your upper body.
The keyboard and mouse should be level with each other and about shoulder-distance apart. For some people, a keyboard that does not have the number pad may be ideal, since the number pad puts the letter keys off-center.
Step 3: Choose and adjust your chair
Your work chair is practically one of your best friends. You likely spend more time with it than your own family. It supports your posture while you work on those reports, correspondence, or research.
The market is full of chairs to choose from, but you may not necessarily need the most expensive, state-of-the-art ergonomic option. Here are a few things to consider:
- Good lumbar support — good posture will involve the lower part of your back supported along its natural slight curve, with the tailbone sticking out a little. To achieve this posture, you will want a chair with sound support throughout your lumbar spine.
- The right height — when seated, your feet should be flat on the floor in front of you, with your thighs slightly below your hips. A footrest may be required for shorter folks. People on the taller side may need to raise the height of their desk.
- Proper seat depth — there should be a small space, approximately the size of a fist, between the end of your chair and the back of your knees. Most chairs will allow you to adjust the seat depth to achieve the proper alignment.
Step 4: Position your screen
Finding the placement for your screen can be important. You’ll want to consider its distance from you, as well as its height and angle.
- Distance — while sitting in your natural posture, extend your arm straight ahead. The tips of your middle fingers should just graze the monitor.
- Height — close your eyes and then open them. Your gaze should land on the address bar of your screen. If you need to adjust your monitor, use the built-in height adjusters, risers, or even books.
- Angle — to avoid reflection, try titling the monitor down slightly.
- Two screens — place your screens next to each other without a gap. If you use one monitor more than the other, it should be centered. If you use them equally, center them both. Next, extend your arm and move it in an arc past both monitors. You should be able to touch both screens throughout this movement.
Step 5: Get up and move around
It almost doesn’t matter how ergonomic your workstation is if you don’t take regular breaks from sitting. Getting up from your desk and moving around is the only way to effectively combat discomfort and health problems associated with prolonged hours in a work chair.
Try taking a break once an hour to walk around the office or stretch. Some activity trackers that monitor your daily steps and heart rate, like Fitbit, will buzz with a reminder to get up and move. If you easily get absorbed in your work and forget to take breaks, try setting an alarm once an hour to remind you. You can either do this on your phone, which is likely within a few feet of you at all times, or set up Google calendar alerts so they ping right on your desktop as you’re working.
Step 6: Mix up your desk positioning with a standing desk
If you can, consider getting an upright desk to work while standing. Working upright will give your body a reprieve from sitting, allowing the muscles to elongate.
You have a couple of options in creating your standing desk. You can have a separate workstation that is elevated, whether in the form of a higher desk, countertop, or some other flat surface. Alternatively, you can purchase an adjustable desk that allows you to sit or stand. There are many such desks available, ranging from thousands of dollars to just under $300. As do-it-yourself products become more popular, several young workers also are turning to Pinterest to build their own standing desks for even less.
Step 7: Exercise to avoid or relieve RSI
If you feel the pain and soreness of a RSI, reach out to a physical therapist. These professionals can give you exercises to practice on your own and incorporate as breaks into your work day. These exercises are usually very simple and easy to perform, typically involving stretching your hands, wrists, shoulders, neck, and upper back.
Although you should always consult with a health professional before starting any strenuous exercise, you can do some simple exercises on your own that help stretch and strengthen your muscles. While you may look a little silly at first doing these in the middle of the office if you don’t have a private one, perhaps you can convince your coworkers to join you —or even start a “stretching hour” at work where everyone takes a break together to do some light exercise.
Helping You Stay Healthy in the Workplace
Plevin & Gallucci focuses on helping employees through a variety of legal issues, including workers’ compensation. We know how difficult coping with injuries and navigating the Ohio workers’ compensation process can be. If you are suffering an occupational injury or illness, please reach out to us today for a free case review.