As a contractor with a degree in biological science, I looked for ways to improve productivity without increased physical or mental stress for my employees. Employers have benefitted from new products developed after years of research into ergonomics; there are tools, office furniture and computer keyboards that reduce repetitive motion injuries and promote better working processes. Less attention has been focused on training employees to properly use these products. Electrical contractors can improve both productivity and employee fitness at a reasonable cost by incorporating changes in the work environment and building employee awareness of how bodies are designed to move.
Human body design
Humans evolved to be physically active, working hard to avoid predator attacks, and find food and shelter. Only recently has technology shifted much of our activity from physical to mental. We have stopped moving. We sit in vehicles, at desks and during meals, and in our leisure time, we watch sports and movies, play computer games, and shop online. We even exercise sitting down, on gym equipment and in “chair Chi” classes. Older people using walkers often stoop and take short steps, but everyone is developing a similar Neanderthal posture as we hunch over our smartphones and tablets. During the day, children and adolescents sit in classrooms and, at night, in front of screens, setting them on a path that will elevate the cost of their future healthcare.
Adapting the environment
We are built to use large muscle groups to squeeze blood back to the heart through our veins and to maintain our balance. Ergonomically designed desk chairs with casters enable workers to use those muscles by rolling around the work space, and frames that convert large balance balls help them maintain postural alignment and core strength. Even better, adjustable desks can be used while sitting, standing or walking on treadmills to improve fitness and mental clarity. Movement of large muscle groups builds muscle strength and bone density, and frequent changes of position promote balance and flexibility.
Workspaces should be organized so that tools and supplies are within reach and the employee faces the object of the work. Work surfaces should be adjusted relative to elbow height: for precision work such as electronic assembly, about 5 centimeters above with elbow support, and 20–40 centimeters below elbow height for heavy work that requires downward application of force. Ergonomic keyboards and height adjustments on furniture allow for proper positioning of arms and hands, and flexible adjustments in lighting reduce eyestrain and make it possible to work more comfortably.
You have less control on project sites, but employees can still be trained to stand, bend and lift correctly, and to handle tools and execute work processes without excessive twisting, overreaching, or placing strain on joints. Mats with slanted edges that are not excessively thick will increase comfort for people who must stand on concrete or metal floors, and properly cushioned and fitted footwear is essential for everyone.
Standing or sitting?
Holding quick meetings while standing can be productive because people will get to the point and keep discussions short. For example, some software companies have daily project collaborations where the team stands in a circle and each person reports on accomplishments, goals and obstacles requiring help from someone else. Ideally, these meetings are held near a project tracking board, and they allow for quick updates and accountability on a daily basis.
However, standing still for too long is no better than sitting for long periods of time. Standing in one place eventually allows blood to pool in the lower legs and feet and causes pain in the back, neck and leg muscles as well as inflammation of the veins. Joints in the hips, knees, feet and back can become locked and eventually cause degeneration of the tendons and ligaments that tie muscles to bones and bones to each other.
A good general rule is to encourage employees to change position frequently and take a break after working in a cramped space or to relax sore muscles. One international building company mandated a specific set of stretching exercises for the first 10 minutes of each day on project sites, and its rate of minor injuries dropped significantly. Even if you do not implement a formal routine, encouraging everyone to move around, stretch, take short walks, and work standing up part of the time will promote awareness of body position and discomfort resulting from misalignment or stress on a particular part of the body.
You do not need to invest in a treadmill for every office or completely change every workspace. Begin encouraging your employees to sit, stand and move a little more each day. Then stand back and watch productivity rise.