31/03/2014 - 13:27

Fitting the workplace to the worker

31/03/2014 - 13:27


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Adapting the working environment to your employees is a smart investment in your people.

Rob Bransby - Managing Director HBF

Adapting the working environment to your employees is a smart investment in your people.

AS PLACES TO WORK safely and comfortably, Australian workplaces have come a long way. Just a few generations ago the risk of death and serious injury a work was very real and many workers retired with their health irreparably damaged. Clearly we are vastly better at keeping employees safe while they are at work today.

Or are we?

Sitting comfortably?

There’s growing evidence that the comfortable workstations so many of us occupy each day may be doing us real harm. Prolonged sitting has emerged as the latest villain with conditions such as poor circulation, heart disease and shorter life expectancy all linked to the time we spend in our chair.

The paperless office has been a long time coming but for many it’s now a reality. And as the number of workplace tasks focused around sitting at a computer has increased, the time we spend at our desk using our fingers (but almost no other part of our bodies) has lengthened. The average office based worker spends 75% of their work time in a sedentary position – significantly more than during non-work time. If your employees are overweight or obese it probably has more to do with what they are doing (or not doing) while they are with you than with their after hours lifestyle.

Prolonged sitting is a major risk factor for the development of musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) - particularly when it’s combined with upper limb repetition (ie keyboard use) and overloading the muscles needed just to keep us seated upright. According to the Workers’ Compensation in Western Australia Annual Statistical Report, MSD accounts for 57% of all lost time claims.

The dramatic increase in work done on mobile devices, such as iPads, adds a new risk factor. Portability and convenience come at a price and hours spent on a tablet without a full sized keyboard or having the screen at eye level only makes development of MSD more likely.

People first

The cost of MSD in the workforce is just one reason why employers should take ergonomics seriously. Ergonomics is the science of fitting the physical environment and the job to the worker’s capabilities and limitations. If that doesn’t sound radical then it should, because it’s the opposite of what employers do most of the time. When

it comes to recruitment and managing employees we recruit the person who is the best fit for the job, we train them to fill the gaps in their skills, and we expect them to modify behaviors to match the culture of our workplace.

Fitting the workplace to the worker means starting with the person, not the role and everyone’s needs are subtly different. The needs of an older employee will be different from someone thirty years younger. Employees with a disability, a chronic health condition or a mental health condition will each have very specific needs. Add to this complexity the many variables involved – workstation setup, office lighting, temperature and more (and this is just for office based employees) – and it’s understandable why many employers pay only lip service to ergonomics.

The payoff

But customizing the workplace to the employee pays dividends. The US Journal of Safety Research carried out a cost-benefit analysis of ergonomic interventions and found that the cost of interventions was recouped in less than a year and the average cost-benefit ratio was 1:18.7.

Ergonomic assessments are amongst the most demanded services provided by HBF’s Corporate Wellness team and HBF itself is a repeat customer. HBF’s team leaders are trained in the knowledge needed to look after their health and the health of their team, ensuring that a basic understanding of ergonomics is widespread in our business. Whether it’s understanding the symptoms of RSI, encouraging team members to attend HBF’s pilates and yoga sessions or just making sure employees take regular breaks, we believe the knowledge must be held by more than a few specialists in your business.

Every new HBF employee undergoes an ergonomic assessment and for some the impact has been profound. One female employee recently found she was able to stop her weekly visits to her physiotherapist and even paint her new home when changes to her workplace addressed the issue causing her longstanding chronic arm pain.

HBF is currently designing the interior of our new headquarters, now under construction in Kings Square and I’m determined that it will be a healthy workplace showcase. It will foster an ethos of ‘move more, sit less’ with a central staircase linking all floors and adjustable sit-stand desks for all employees. But getting the big things right will be just the first step. People are individuals and creating an environment where every person can produce their very best work will also call for that personal touch.


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