The Economics of Ergonomics

For a happier staff and a more productive firm, apply the principles of ergonomics.

BY LAURA BARON
December 1, 2006

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
Sound ergonomics makes economic sense. The goal of ergonomics is to boost productivity by increasing employee performance and comfort and reducing injuries and errors. CPA firms that attend to staff members’ comfort and health are rewarded with greater work performance and job loyalty.

A neat, clean and comfortable work environment is important. It could mean the difference between having a superstar or a mediocre person come work for your firm.

To begin a program, CPA firms can create an internal ergonomics committee to gather information and seek training or hire a consultant. Ergonomics committees should involve the human resources department in the design and implementation of new programs.

The ergonomics committee should look at the postures people assume at work, the tasks they perform, the office lighting and temperature, and the furniture and workstation arrangements. A firm that is outfitting an office with ergonomic equipment should seek out only durable, adjustable, high-quality products.

There is no one-size-fits-all workstation arrangement. One absolute: Equipment should be at a distance that doesn’t cause employees to twist their heads, necks or bodies.

Laura Baron is an editor on the JofA . Ms. Baron is an employee of the AICPA and her views, as expressed in this article, do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute. Official positions are determined through certain specific committee procedures, due process and deliberation.

pplying ergonomic principles in the workplace doesn’t call for NASA scientists or a big budget. From setting the right temperature in the office to providing chairs with back support and lights that minimize eyestrain, CPA firms that attend to staff comfort and health are rewarded with greater productivity and job loyalty.

Ouch!

Every 18 seconds a worker gets a musculoskeletal disorder (MSD)
such as a sprain, strain or back injury.

Source: American Federation of Government Employees, www.afge.org .

A CLEAR BUSINESS ADVANTAGE
The goal of sound ergonomics is to boost employee performance while reducing injuries and errors, says Alan Hedge, professor of ergonomics, Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. Pain or environmental distractions reduce productivity, which eventually shows up on the bottom line. Whether you’re a sole practitioner working from home, a managing partner of a CPA firm or a CFO in industry, if your office doesn’t follow ergonomic principles it is losing money through poorer staff performance, he says.

Edward Mendlowitz, CPA, of Withum Smith+Brown, New Brunswick, N.J., agrees that an ergonomic office is good business. “It’s a selling point in a firm’s recruitment and retention efforts,” he says. He recalls working at a dark New York office with outdated technology and furniture that turned prospective employees away. Eventually he left, too.

“Having a neat, clean and comfortable work environment is very important,” Mendlowitz says. “It can mean the difference between having a superstar or a mediocre employee come work for you.”

BUT HOW TO BEGIN?
Whether you’re expanding or changing locations, designing a more ergonomically sound office can yield big rewards whatever your firm’s size. If your firm is large, form an ergonomics committee to ask employees or the human resources department about any physical issues that have arisen and to research what type of ergonomics program is best. Any time a firm introduces new equipment or technology to the office, employees can feel anxious, alienated, overworked and vulnerable, so it’s wise to involve HR in the design and implementation of new programs.

It will be helpful if the committee can determine whether particular departments or tasks carry a higher rate of repetitive stress injury (RSI) than others. The committee also can review the types of ergonomic products available and attend some ergonomics training before developing a program budget.

“Programs don’t have to be too formal,” Hedge says, “but some formality helps keep enthusiasm from waning.” He suggests smaller firms designate a few staff members as ergonomics champions to organize periodic awareness meetings, help employees get ergonomics training (see www.healthycomputing.com ) and monitor the program’s performance and success.

Most ergonomic changes involve little or no cost, Hedge says. For instance, you can move equipment closer so people can reach it without straining and without awkward postures, he says (see “ Case Study ”). For a small cost, the firm’s managers can make sure employees have well-designed chairs and learn how to sit properly in them. The most important thing is to listen to and involve employees in the process of improving their workspaces.

 

Being a CPA has spared me from most work-related health problems. Atop my padded chair in a climate-controlled office, I am in danger only from an occasional paper cut—or so I thought. But heel spurs and carpal tunnel syndrome eventually caught up with me. Here is what I did.

Heel spurs. A sharp pain on the bottom of my foot near the heel bothered me off and on for years. I ignored it until the pain became severe during busy season, an inconvenient time to see a doctor. So I researched my symptoms on the Internet, where www.heelspurs.com suggested my condition might be caused by not stretching my calf muscles. I started daily stretching exercises and my heel pain quickly went away.

Carpal tunnel syndrome. After a long day of banging on a keyboard or calculator, the wrists and hands of many CPAs and office workers are literally throbbing. One of the worst cases I knew of was that of a business owner client who’d already had corrective surgery, but whose pain seemed to be coming back. He tried keeping his wrists straight, with the hands gently stretched downward whenever he typed. Once he changed his work position, his pain went away.

After I heard this story, I watched how people in my office worked and realized those suffering most were bending their hands back as they typed. Changing their workstation, angling the keyboard or regularly resting the wrist eliminated the kink in the wrist and with it the pain. I keep my keyboard on top of my full-size desk, causing me to reach up and over it with my hands pointing down.

Of course, piano teachers always have demanded their students practice and play with straight wrists. Bending the wrist back even a little causes pressure on the median nerve, resulting in pain.

So there you have it—common-sense solutions to two physical ailments that afflict CPAs and other contemporary professionals. Of course, if these approaches don’t work, you will need to see a doctor.

—James Vander Spek, CPA

James Vander Spek, CPA, is a partner at Vander Spek & Corsello in Escondido, Calif., www.VanderSpekCPAs.com .

Once the firm decides to allocate funds to an ergonomics program, it could hire a consultant to provide advice on the plan design. This might be helpful for small firms that don’t have the resources or time to do research. Establishing a working relationship with a professional ergonomist ensures the firm will be kept current with the latest information, Hedge says. (See “ You’re Invited to an Ergo Room. ”)

  You’re Invited to an Ergo Room

Firms with the budget and space may want to designate a room where employees can test ergonomic products, chairs and other furniture before the firm invests in them. Organize an “Ergo Day” once a year with vendors on hand to answer questions. Consider coordinating it with other CPA firms in your area.

Types of Products to Consider
Chairs. Chairs have different adjustment options. Look for a seat-depth adjuster or seat slider and adjustable backrest height and tilt and seat height.

Keyboards. Consider keyboards that can adjust or have a left-hand numeric keypad. Ergonomic keyboards with shorter footprints bring the mouse closer to the body.

Mice. There are different mice for left and right hands. Employees who want to use two mice to alternate and rest their hands can get a dual mouse adapter. Some mice require less reaching because the buttons are in front of the keyboard.

Footrests. Display a few styles that offer various heights.

Desks. Most firms do not have the budget to purchase new adjustable ergonomic furniture for everyone. Consider buying new desks when your firm changes locations, or for newly created departments or employees with certain injuries.

Keyboard trays and armrests. These items let employees adjust keyboard height for a more natural wrist, shoulder and back position. Lift-and-lock armrests are easier to adjust and use than those with lever locks. Test a few.

Ergo stretch software. This software reminds workers to take a break and guides them through specific stretches.

Squeeze balls. These useful de-stressors usually are vendor give-away items. Squeeze balls come in different colors and textures to suit user tastes.

How to Test Products
Have employees try out products in their own offices, using the actual setup and lighting whenever feasible. When testing a keyboard, mouse or keyboard tray, sit in a chair that fits correctly, with feet flat on the floor or on a footrest. Place the products at a height that allows the shoulders to be relaxed.

—Wendy Young, CAE

Wendy Young, CAE, is president of ErgoPro.com, Bellaire, Texas, www.ergopro.com .

But your firm can handle the task just fine on its own, too. There are basic principles to follow in setting up a work environment correctly involving postures, tasks, lighting, temperature, furniture and equipment.

POSTURE, PEOPLE!
The crux of an ergonomically sound workspace is fitting tools to workers to permit natural movement. Wendy Young, CAE, president of ErgoPro.com, Bellaire, Texas, says when she evaluates how employees work in their office environments, she looks at how they sit or stand and how they hold their shoulders and wrists. She finds out how many keyboard-entry and mouse tasks they perform and how much time they spend on the telephone, filing, stapling and hole punching.

Carolyn Sechler, CPA, a Phoenix-based sole practitioner and virtual firm owner, is paying a lot more attention to ergonomics after a bout with back pain this year. Acting on her chiropractor’s advice she got a wireless headset for her telephone, and she makes a point of standing up and moving every time she takes a call. “I have the freedom to move around, and I even can do some arm exercises while chatting with clients because my hands are free,” she says.

 
Plantronics H51 SUPRA Headset
with Voice Tube
  Humanscale The Foot Machine Footrest

Sechler also uses a small slanted footrest to help improve her posture while she works at the computer. The footrest has a built-in fan and heater and little bumps that massage her feet to improve circulation. At about $60, it has been well worth the money, she says.

Young also tries to assess employees’ personalities and behaviors. Are they naturally stressed or relaxed? Do they rest periodically or just plow through work without looking up? Do they take a lunch break or eat between mouse clicks? Naturally relaxed people do not get hurt as often as those who are tense, she says.

Mendlowitz doesn’t use any special equipment, but he urges employees at his firm to get out of the office for lunch every day no matter how busy they are. Fresh air and physical activity reduce stress and recharge the mind, he maintains.

LET YOUR BODY MOVE
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) says employees may face risks from poor task organization, which can intensify the impact of other risk factors such as repetition. For example, viewing the monitor for a prolonged period can fatigue the muscles in the neck and shoulders that support the head. Failure to recognize early warning signs also may allow small injuries to develop into serious ones. Variation in tasks and workstations gives employees time to recover from the effects of an activity.

Kensington Glaremaster
Antiglare Filter

There is a lot of repetitive motion in the CPA workday, Young says. CPAs constantly enter numbers on a keyboard or an adding machine, which increases the risk of developing a repetitive stress injury (RSI). She advises CPAs to try to keep stress to a minimum—especially at tax season, when the body is tense and less flexible. (For workplace de-stressing exercises, see “ To Your Health ,” JofA , Sep.03, page 65.) An ergonomics program will require a change in firm mind-set, whether it be adjustable keyboards for all or mini rest breaks throughout the day. Your firm’s mantra should be: The body must rest.

Employers also can provide “recovery time” by offering adjustable workstations so staff members can change their working postures to sit or stand; ensuring there is enough workspace to let employees alternate hands when using a mouse; teaching them how to substitute keystrokes for mousing tasks (such as Ctrl+S to save and Ctrl+P to print); and providing several short rest breaks to encourage staff to move around. Mendlowitz’s firm has a fooseball table where employees take 10-minute breaks. Hedge says firm managers should allow employees to take 1- or 2-minute breaks from computer work every 20 to 30 minutes.

SEE THE LIGHT
When Young visits an office, she determines whether the lighting there causes glare, whether there is enough of it, whether it is spread evenly over the workspace and whether light shines directly in workers’ eyes or on computer monitors.

Leita Hart, CPA, of Austin, Texas, is fond of natural light, which she describes as the key to her happiness at the office. “Ergonomics is a bit trendy and a lot of folks write off the principles as ‘silly,’” she says, “but they suggest real and practical ways of increasing comfort and reducing clutter so you can think more clearly and be a better worker.” All CPAs can benefit from incorporating some of those ideals into their work lives, she says.

Poor office lighting can cause eyestrain or headaches. OSHA recommends placing rows of lights parallel to your line of sight. Have facilities managers remove a middle bulb of four-bulb fluorescent fixtures to reduce brightness, or use diffusers or alternative light sources. Provide supplemental task/desk lighting in order to adequately illuminate writing and reading tasks while limiting brightness around computer monitors. Reorient workstations so windows are at right angles to the computer screen. Be sure to clean monitors frequently and use glare filters that attach directly to the monitor’s surface.

TURN IT UP (OR DOWN)
Temperatures at levels above or below normal can reduce employee productivity and comfort, Young says. “Too cold will reduce blood flow while too hot will create lethargy.” The recommended indoor temperatures are 68 to 74 degrees Fahrenheit during winter and 73 to 78 degrees during summer. Also, dry air can irritate eyes and poor air circulation can result in stuffiness or stagnancy.

FURNITURE…A GOOD PLACE TO SPLURGE
Good office furniture is essential to the ergonomic fitness of a workplace. Leita Hart, who is 6'3" tall, has had to raise her desk several inches to accommodate her long legs. An adjustable work surface allows her to sit or stand at her computer. She suggests very short or tall people work with their office facilities manager to get the right desk configuration and measurements.

A high-quality chair is very important, too. “It’s worth spending some money on a good chair,” Hart says. “I have one with strong support. Your back will thank you.” OSHA recommends a chair with a backrest that provides lower back support, a seat width and depth that accommodates a range of user shapes, a seat with rounded “waterfall” cushioning (no sharp edges) that doesn’t press against the backs of your knees, and armrests that support the forearms without interfering with movement.

 
Balt—Hi Hi-Lo Pneumatic
Stand-Up Workstation
  BodyBilt 757 Secretary

WORKSTATION LAYOUT
There is no one-size-fits-all workstation arrangement. OSHA guidelines say the tops of desktop monitors should be at or just below eye level so workers can see them without bending their necks down or back. They should be far enough away that workers don’t have to lean their head, neck or trunk forward or backward to read what’s on-screen and directly in front so people don’t have to twist their bodies. Firm ergonomic champions should ensure that computer monitor, keyboard and mouse arrangements meet current ergonomic recommendations (see http://ergo.human.cornell.edu ). Sechler positioned her equipment so she doesn’t have to look down and uses two 21-inch screens that sit side by side.

Mendlowitz strongly encourages his employees to clear their desks of clutter every day. “I don’t allow people to keep more than one project on their desk, even if they’re working on several,” he says. “That way, my employees don’t get too overwhelmed.” The firm keeps work folders accessible but not on top of people’s desks. Employees focus better on one task at a time, he says.

» Practical Tips
Your firm can create its own ergonomics program. Make sure it includes

Training staff and partners about ergonomics.

Collecting information on staff injuries and discomfort and involving employees in improving their workspaces.

Identifying risk factors that can cause problems (repetitive motion, awkward postures and long periods of repetitive activities).

Changing workstation equipment and the way work is done to prevent or reduce injuries.

Monitoring whether the program is working.

Source: American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, www.afscme.org .

THE TOOL BENCH
It’s important to ask what tools employees use every day to perform their jobs. Hart owns a large laptop with an oversized keyboard and screen. While it’s heavier than regular laptops, she says the large screen is easier on her eyes and she makes fewer typos on the larger keyboard.

 
Cordless TrackMan Wheel
Trackball Mouse
  Kinesis Maxim Adjustable
Keyboard

Hart also swears by her ergonomic keyboard. She finds typing on it causes less strain in the wrists. OSHA suggests placing your keyboard and mouse on a sturdy platform roomy enough for both.

AT THE END OF THE WORKDAY…
Whether your firm starts small or makes a larger commitment to an ergonomics program, you’ll be glad you took action. Your firm will reap dividends in smiling, more productive employees with fewer injuries, better health and more time to concentrate on the business of serving clients. And isn’t that what’s most important of all?

 
  Some Ergonomic Resources

Barbre Ergonomics
www.barbre-ergonomics.com

BodyBilt
www.ergo4me.com

Cornell University Ergonomics Web
http://ergo.human.cornell.edu

ErgoPro.com
www.ergopro.com

Ergoweb
www.ergoweb.com/training

Fentek Industries
www.fentek-ind.com

Future Industrial Technologies
www.backsafe.com/sittingsafe.html

Healthy Computing
www.healthycomputing.com

Humantech
www.humantech.com

Office Ergonomics Training
www.office-ergo.com

Office Ergonomix
www.411ergo.com

Usernomics
www.usernomics.com/workplace-ergonomics.html

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