Earlier this year, Patty Hartwig received what for her was an unusual request.
As IT director for Brooklyn Center, Minn., Hartwig was used to solving common ergonomics problems for users by providing specially designed chairs or the occasional ergonomic mouse. But Assistant City Manager Vickie Schleuning sought a way she could be on her feet for more of her workday.
"If you spend a lot of hours at your desk, the body wasn't made for sitting as long as you work," says Schleuning, who is also Brooklyn Center's director of building and community standards.
With Hartwig's help, Schleuning switched to an Ergotron WorkFit-S sit-stand workstation and now works more comfortably, moving easily between positions. While the long-term wellness benefits of standing on the job have garnered recent attention, the request for a sit-stand workstation was triggered by a user's distress.
"The people who work for the city know they can come to us when they're not comfortable at their computers," says Hartwig. "Most of the ergonomics IT deals with are keyboard, mouse and chair issues, but we help find solutions to other situations, like Vickie's back discomfort."
Like Brooklyn Center, many state and local governments implement ergonomic solutions on a case-by-case basis. While proactive ergonomics programs designed to prevent injuries and promote employee wellness and productivity are increasingly common in government agencies, responding to workers' existing problems remains the primary focus, says Gene Kay, the managing director at ErgoAdvocate, an ergonomics consultancy.
"A good ergonomics program is going to focus on productivity, efficiency, safety and comfort, but most of them are specifically designed for injury reduction or responding to reports of discomfort," says Kay.
When James Mason became the occupational health and safety officer for the city of Berkeley, Calif., a decade ago, he had plenty of specific problems to resolve for municipal office workers: Thirty-five percent of on-the-job injuries were computer-related. Now that figure is less than 10 percent. The city achieved the reduction in part through standardizing on custom-fitted ergonomic chairs and adjustable keyboard trays, as well as providing sit-stand stations, mainly for workers with back problems.
Mason attributes much of the decline, however, to an information campaign that discouraged workers from staying in one position for more than 55 minutes without moving. "Being static in any position, whether it's standing or sitting, is not healthy," he says. "The work/rest regime helps the city and the workers. When people are refreshed, both the quality and quantity of their work goes up."
In Portland, Ore., it's not uncommon for city workers to stand at their computers, either because of an injury or personal preference. The city works with employees to find supporting solutions, such as height-adjustable workstations and keyboard platforms, according to Risk Specialist Jillian Cornejo in the Office of Management and Finance.
Portland has a comprehensive program to ensure that workers are comfortable and to manage the risk of developing musculoskeletal disorders on the job. Aspects of the initiative include an Internet-based self-Âassessment tool, a trained ergonomics coordinator in most of the city bureaus, and an ergonomics lab where users can try out solutions.
"The city of Portland puts a great deal of importance on people being happy, comfortable and productive at work," Cornejo says. "Paying attention to ergonomics is part of that."
As the ergonomics coordinator for Portland's Bureau of Technology ÂServices, Alexzandria Miller helps her coworkers use the program to find solutions to their specific problems. "I'm there to help on a need-by-need basis because everyone is an individual," Miller says. "Sometimes it's something straightforward that we can solve right away, and sometimes I schedule an ergonomics assessment at the lab for them."
An Individual Issue
As a relatively small municipality, Brooklyn Center doesn't have an ergonomics lab, but Schleuning and Hartwig conducted ample research before Schleuning selected the Workfit-S LCD & Laptop Workstation.
At just under $400, it was the least expensive unit that met her needs, she says. Besides price, ease in moving between sitting and standing positions was a key factor in the purchasing decision.
The decline, from 1960 to 2008, in the average number ofcalories burned a day by men in the increasingly sedentary U.S. workforce; 120 for women
Source: "Trends Over 5 Decades in U.S. Occupation-Related Physical Activity and Their Associations with Obesity," PLoS One (May 2011)
"I can get [the WorkFit] up and down in seconds," says Schleuning. "The flexibility is important because I want to be able to sit part of the time."
The WorkFit-S also accommodates a notebook docking station with the additional monitor and keyboard, an important consideration for workers like Schleuning who need to be mobile some of the time. The workstation also attaches to existing furniture and is easy to install -- Schleuning set it up by herself one snowy weekend afternoon.
The assistant city manager's experience could make the WorkFit-S a model solution for other city workers, just as the Evoluent VerticalMouse ergonomic mouse has been adopted by several workers in city hall with wrist or carpal tunnel problems after it provided good results for one individual, says Hartwig.
"We learn by what works and what doesn't," she says. "You have to balance that with knowing that each problem is unique -- there's no one-size-fits-all in ergonomics."
For Gene Kay, the motivation for standing on the job is pretty simple.
"The research suggests that the more you sit, the sooner you're going to die," says Kay, the managing director of ErgoAdvocate.
While many of the people who stand at their computers do so to relieve back or leg pain, going vertical at work can have more profound and long-lasting health effects, he says.
Almost by definition, standing on the job is an antidote to "sitting disease," the name some researchers and physicians have applied to an array of maladies related to a sedentary lifestyle. Long periods of inactivity contribute to obesity and high blood pressure; it also reduces the body's ability to process blood sugar, which can lead to the onset of diabetes. Inactivity also decreases blood circulation, making people less alert and productive, says Kay. Standing benefits posture and the core muscles that maintain balance, but standing still for long periods is not much better than sitting, he says.
To stay healthy, users must frequently move, Kay says, to stimulate the production of enzymes that fuel metabolism. "When you sit, everything slows down -- it's like your computer falling asleep," he says. "Like moving your computer mouse, it only takes a little bit of regular movement to wake your body up."
Equipment that makes it easier for workers to stand at their computers can be helpful, but the main barriers to people choosing to work on their feet are social and psychological, says Kay.
"A person can feel self-conscious if they work in a cubicle and they're the only person in the room standing," he says. "But there are other strategies -- some people set their computers to tell them to change positions and move around at regular intervals. Every little movement helps."