Avoiding Neck and Back Pain at Work: Office and Workplace Ergonomics

January 27, 2011

Neck and back pain at work is a common cause of doctor visits. It is widespread across many occupations, from heavy construction work to light office work, and it reduces work productivity. Social-economic costs associated with neck and back pain at work, including reduced work productivity, lost wages, and treatment costs, are substantial.

Many factors at work pose risk for joint, neck, and back pain and can cause musculoskeletal disorders such as carpal tunnel syndrome, muscle strains, disc herniation, tendonitis, and bursitis. The following are some common risk factors of neck and back pain at work.

  • Heavy lifting. Frequent and heavy lifting can cause muscle strains, ligament sprains, disc bulge, and even bone fractures.
  • Repetitive motion. Overly repetitive tasks such as computer data inputting can lead to muscle fatigue and injury if performing the tasks for extended periods of time.
  • Whole-body vibration. Studies have shown that whole-body vibration caused by reasons such as driving a motor vehicle on a rough road coincides with the natural frequency of the spine, making the spine and back tissue vulnerable to injury from resonance.
  • Static posture. Prolonged static postures such as sitting or standing for extended periods of time put too much pressure on the discs and joints of the back, which could lead to neck and back pain.
  • Stress. Heavy workload and pressure increase stress in the workplace. High stress can cause muscle tightness and lead to neck and back pain.

Ergonomics is the scientific study of humans and their work. It uses anatomical, physiological, psychological, and mechanical principles to increase the efficiency of using human energy. Workplace ergonomics designs tasks and workplace environments to fit the workers’ physical capabilities, not forcing the workers to fit the environments.

Ergonomics techniques in the workplace are industry and task-specific. The following are some basic workplace ergonomics tips for those who are prone to neck and back pain at work.

Office Ergonomics

Nowadays almost all office work involves sitting in front of a computer for extended periods of time. For those whose job requires them to sit for prolonged time, the following office ergonomics tips can help avoid neck and back pain.

  • Maintain a neutral sitting posture in which your joints are naturally aligned
  • Support your lower back with your chair’s back rest
  • Keep your upper body upright or lean slightly back
  • Keep your head level and place your work in front of you so that you look straight ahead while working
  • Keep your elbows close to your sides and bent at about 90˚
  • Keep your wrists straight while working, not bent up, down, or to the side
  • Keep your knees at the same level as, or slightly below the level of, your hips
  • Place your feet slightly out in front of your knees and rest them comfortably on the floor or a footrest
  • Stretch your neck, back, arms, and legs periodically
  • Stand up and walk around for 1 or 2 minutes every hour

Workplace Ergonomics for Those Who Stand for Prolonged Periods of Time

Jobs such as retail sales require the workers to stand for extended periods of time. For these people, the following tips can help avoid or ease neck or back at work.

  • Stand straight and keep the ears, shoulders, and hips in alignment
  • Wear low-heeled shoes
  • Bend knees slightly; do not lock the knees
  • Change postures frequently

Workplace Ergonomics for Those Whose Job Involves Heavy Lifting

  • Bend your knees, not your back, while lifting
  • Keep the object close to your body
  • Do not twist while lifting

Workplace ergonomics are industry and task-specific, and the tips mentioned above are not a comprehensive list. For more information about workplace ergonomics, visit the Web sites of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (www.osha.gov/SLTC/ergonomics), the Department of Labor (www.osha.gov/SLTC/ergonomics/guidelines.html), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/ergonomics).