Ergonomics in the Office: Health, safety, and design professionals

February 12, 2016

Workers need to take care of their joints when working in stationary positions all day long. Photo courtesy Public Services Health and Safety Association
Workers need to take care of their joints when working in stationary positions all day long.
Photo courtesy Public Services Health and Safety Association

by Monica Szabo
Many architects and specifications writers spend long stretches of time at a desk in an office, and are potentially exposed to numerous other work situations that present health and safety hazards when out in the field. There is an entire series of regulations related to construction projects, many of which apply to representatives of architectural firms while onsite. It is recommended design professionals be familiar with provincial and federal regulations that apply not only to industrial and construction environments, but also to their own practices.

This article reviews some key ways to prevent injury and promote health, safety, and wellness in today’s changing work environments, drawing on suggestions from the Public Services Health and Safety Association (PSHSA), funded by the Ontario Ministry of Labour.

Office ergonomics
Ergonomics play an important role in worker health and safety in an office setting for architects, designers, and specifiers. Ergonomics is the science of fitting the job to the worker; it has proven important in preventing the types of musculoskeletal injuries that contribute to workplace-related disability claims and long-term health impacts.

Once a person is injured, all of his or her daily activities may be disrupted. Ergonomic implementation works to prevent injuries, rather than treat them. It may include education about risk factors and causes of injuries, and encourages good habits in posture, body mechanics, and exercise.

Changes in the workplace environment continue to be driven by advances in technology. The overwhelming impact of bringing computers into the office resulted in a complete redesign of the space. In many instances, computers have changed not only the shape of the office and the way work is done, but have also affected the lifestyle of the workers[1].

The number of people working with laptop computers, tablets, and smartphones is growing. Some estimate they will soon account for more than half the working population, creating the biggest challenge for occupational health and safety. Tablets and laptops can cause bad posture as they tend to be used in awkward positions—on airplanes, at dining room tables, or on one’s lap—which causes straining of muscles. Smartphones are small and are used frequently with repetitive motions in fingers over a small area of space.

Even more alarming is the high number of complaints about discomfort and injury. Against all expectations, the wider application of ergonomic principles is not dramatically alleviating the problems. This creates a new challenge to convince computer operators and all working people their own health and well-being depends as much, if not more, on their own actions than on the institutionalized healthcare system.

Prevention through participation may be the right approach. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) states, “the involvement of people in planning and controlling a significant amount of their own work activities, with sufficient knowledge and power to influence both processes and outcomes in order to achieve desirable goals.”

Ergonomics assessments
In an effort to help offices reduce ergonomic-type injuries, PSHSA offers a variety of ergonomic services, including:

A number of sectors are facing difficult challenges in prevention, including an aging workforce, growing workloads, shrinking budgets, and a demand for internal changes to process. These changes impact how an organization implements and integrates requirements related to legislation into its business operations, including addressing the hazards and providing mandatory health and safety awareness training to all employees.

Musculoskeletal disorders
The most prominent of serious workplace injuries is a musculoskeletal disorder (MSD).

Every day in various job settings, including seemingly benign design firms or home office environments, people use muscles, tendons, ligaments, and joints to lift, push, pull, carry, kneel, stand, walk, move, and work in a variety of ways. However, sometimes these tasks, or the way they are performed, can put too much demand, on bodies, causing pain and discomfort. Additionally, they may lead to a more serious injury—a musculoskeletal disorder.

The man on the right is showing correct posture when working at a desk, while the man on the left is showing poor posture. Photo c
The man on the left is showing correct posture when working at a desk, while the man on the right is showing poor posture.
Photo ©

MSDs account for 43 per cent of workplace injuries—making them the most prevalent type of workplace injury, and one of the most costly safety and health problems in the modern workplace. They negatively impact personal lives, and can take longer to heal than acute injuries. Preventing MSDs needs to be a key part of every workplace health and safety program, including:

Supervisors, workers, and Joint Health and Safety Committee (JHSC) members (discussed later in this article) need to check for MSD-related hazards during regular inspections, including:

There are other regulations applicable to specific tasks undertaken by architectural and design firms.

Prevention of falls from heights
Training is required for all employees who might work at heights while visiting construction sites; employers must retain records of training.

Workplace Hazardous Materials Information Systems
Training is necessary for both the basics of Workplace Hazardous Materials Information Systems (WHMIS) and for other specific onsite requirements. This training should be given to any worker onsite near controlled products. It applies to construction sites, industrial sites, and some office situations (i.e. use of ammonia).

Designated substances
A list of designated substances needs to be available onsite and must be prepared and issued with tender documents, for example asbestos and lead (listed by owner, inclusion by party issuing tenders).

Protective clothing, equipment, devices
Protective clothing, equipment, and devices should be worn or used as required by the construction regulation and in other situations as prescribed by other appropriate regulations.

Joint Health and Safety Committee
Every business in Ontario with 20 or more workers is required to have a Joint Health and Safety Committee (JHSC). Members of this committee must be trained in common workplace hazards found in their particular place of work. (Other provinces may have similar requirements.)

In order to ensure the training standards maintain a high level of quality and consistency, the province’s Ministry of Labour will be implementing a new training standard on March 1. JHSC Part One ensures committee members understand their rights and responsibilities and know how to read legislation. JHSC Part Two training ensures members are trained in hazards specific to their work environment. Participants will:

On construction sites, it is mandatory to have an onsite health and safety representative chosen among the workers where the employees regularly exceed five. That representative will require training.

For more information on PSHSA’s JHSC training program and the new JHSC standard, visit this website[2].

Importance of health and safety
The reality of a workplace injury or fatality is so much more than just the direct cost. The underlying and emotional costs are significant in many ways. According to the WSIB, the average compensation cost of a claim for 2010 is estimated at more than $20,000. The associated costs for a workplace injury could total three to 10 times that amount, including:

In today’s organizations, strong leaders realize the importance of promoting a culture of health and safety, along with integrating prevention measures into business strategies, processes, and performance measures. The Occupational Health and Safety Act (OSHA) and regulations set out clear requirements for creating a safe and healthy work environment. Leaders need to go beyond meeting their legal obligations, and seek instead to meet the spirit of the law—knowing that organizational performance depends on a healthy and safe work environment and engaged employees.

Monica_Szabo[1]Monica Szabo has more than 25 years of experience in health and safety, and has developed results-oriented solutions for the public sector. Szabo is a Registered Occupational Hygienist (ROH), Canadian Registered Safety Professional (CRSP), and a Certified Occupational Health and Safety Technologist (OHST). She can be reached at[3].

  1. lifestyle of the workers:
  2. website:

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