Regular postings on employee engagement, injury prevention and ergonomics.
Just a fad? 5 Ergo Product Trends: Insight from an Occupational Therapist
Nikki Weiner, OTD, OTR/L, AOEAS
I attended a conference a few weeks ago where several HR professionals had questions about what to do when employees request specific ergonomic equipment, like ball chairs and standing desks. With so many ergonomic trends out there, how is an employer or employee supposed to know if these products are the best solution to address an ergonomic problem? The marketplace is full of products labeled “ergonomic”, and it’s difficult to tease out products that are actually beneficial versus products that are fashionable. Here are 5 ergonomic product trends that I see in workplaces and considerations for each product before adding them to your Amazon cart.
1. Sit-stand desk risers
Risers are taking over desks everywhere! Two main considerations from an ergonomic standpoint are (1) ease of adjustment and (2) seated desk height. Risers are often manual or gas-assisted rather than electric, which saves cost. They feel easy to adjust in the show room, but once these are loaded up with the heavy technology and accessories on your desk, they lose ease of adjustment. Furthermore, levers are often placed near the rear of the riser, which sets the user up for poor body mechanics to lift a very heavy load. (And to think, so many of my clients use these to address back pain issues!) The second consideration is that risers may increase your seated desk height, which may cause upper back, neck or wrist pain if you don’t make further adjustments such as using a foot rest, keyboard tray or increasing chair height.
Not to be the bearer of bad news about risers, but they also limit the working desk space, causing awkward bending and twisting of the back and neck to view and access documents, the phone, or other frequently used items.
In short, manually adjusted desk risers may be good for a specific person, generally taller than 6 feet who want to stand to be more active- not for people with existing musculoskeletal problems and not for people who need a large working desk space. Most importantly, no matter the style or type of sit-stand desk, the user must be educated on how to use them ergonomically for actual benefit.
2. Ball chairs
How fun it is to bounce at the desk all day! (Well, fun for a little bit at least.) The problem with these chairs is that they are not height adjustable, again setting up the user for upper back, neck, and arm discomfort, unless the user has an electric desk that can lower to approximate elbow height. Ball chairs also lack lumbar support, leading to a back fatigue over time. So, save the ball for ergo-breaking rather than extended work at the desk. And if the issue is buttocks numbness or discomfort, firmer seating is actually a more effective option (see my previous blog on “seating tips from an occupational therapist” here.
3. Split keyboard
People with wrist and hand issues gravitate towards split keyboards because of the “ergonomic” claim. These keyboards are for a specific issue, ulnar deviation, which generally is a problem I see with broader shouldered individuals. Before purchasing one of these, first consider the cause of the problem and other potential solutions-- is the desk too high or chair too low? Are you typing with too much force? Do you need a mini keyboard instead? Could you rest your hands by using dictation software? Are you taking breaks and stretching in regular intervals?
4. Ergonomic mouse
Ergonomic mice are often vertical in design and made to use strictly on the users’ dominant side. They are devised to keep the wrist in a neutral position. Again, the “ergonomic” claim may stir up an impulse to purchase one. These mice come in a variety of sizes and should be fitted properly to one’s hand. It’s important to note that you will not be able to rest your dominant hand, since they are hand specific. A better approach would be to practice using your alternate hand for mousing (your brain gets the hang of it over time because of neuroplasticity— an example of this being people who have had strokes re-learning to do everyday tasks or even switching hand dominance). Resting the irritated hand is a better strategy for MSD prevention, or considering an ergonomic mouse like the Roller Mouse, which can be used by both hands.
5. Desk bicycle
Again, sounds like a lot of fun! I think the ideal place for these would be a shared office space where you have the option to take a 20-30 minute spin and, of course, combined with an electric height adjustable desk so your body mechanics are ideal for computer use. These are pretty cool, yes, but I do not recommend using them all day because they usually lack lumbar support and the other seat adjustments and features that promote healthy weight distribution, posture, and comfort. If the problem is not moving enough during the day, there are many other creative solutions for integrating more movement into the day, for example, walking meetings. A brief jaunt on a bike should not be a substitute for regular movement breaks that involve getting out of the chair.
The most important thing to remember about ergonomics is that it cannot be viewed as a one-size-fits- all approach. Ergonomics has to do with the specific person and environmental factors, and just because one product works for one person for one problem, it does not mean it will work for the next person. It may be intriguing to see your office mate with fancy new ergonomic accessories, but don’t be fooled – they are not magical solutions!
Need help teasing out what products are right for you?
Contact me for an ergonomic consultation: firstname.lastname@example.org