Ergonomics… It’s not just for office employees

By: MaryGrace Johansen, VTBA, Director of Safety & Loss Control
   More often than not when someone mentions ergonomics our thoughts go to someone sitting at a desk, we don’t necessarily think about the ergonomics of other tasks such as driving, but ergonomics impacts many of the things we do. Merriam-Webster defines Ergonomics as “an applied science concerned with designing and arranging things people use so that the people & things interact most efficiently and safely”.
   An improperly designed work space can cause discomfort, pain and disorders in the neck, shoulder, back, arm, hand, and wrist that can lead to musculoskeletal disease. For employees that work at a desk arranging their works space so that it works best for the individual is something we are familiar with. This may involve adjusting the height of the chair so that the individual’s knees are at a 90 degree angle, and their feet are flat on the floor, or on a footrest, or adjusting the placement, or position of the keyboard so that your wrists are straight, and your hands are at or below elbow level.
   But, how often do we apply ergonomic principals to other jobs such as driving?   Driving is something that most of us have been doing since we were 16 or 17. When we began driving we were taught the rules of the road, or at least I hope, but were we ever taught the importance of sitting correctly? Most of us do not give much thought to how we are sitting while we are driving unless you drive long distances and feel discomfort while driving. If you watch teenagers behind the wheel especially boys you will notice that they are probably sitting back almost as if they are half lying down, with one arm on top of the steering wheel. While this may be a cool thing to do when you are young it unknowingly takes a tremendous toll on the body. Just resting your wrist on the top of the steering wheel with your fingers flopped over the top cause’s compression of the soft tissue of the wrist and reduces circulation at the neck and shoulder. It is one thing to drive this way when you are a teen but sadly I have often observed adults driving in a similar way.
   Unfortunately driving this way as an adult causes stress on your body which when we are young doesn’t affect us as much as when we are older. In addition, while the average individual may spend 1-2 hours behind the wheel getting to and from work the professional driver spends anywhere from 8-12 hours behind the wheel.
   For the professional driver assessing the ergonomics of their work environment is essential to their health. Professional driving can take a toll on the body – especially in the form of bodily aches and pains. That’s because long periods of sitting with your arms and legs outstretched (driving) places extra strain on your body’s joints and muscles. Prolonged exposure to this extra strain can affect posture and the natural way in which your muscles want to hold your body upright. Your body’s eventual response to this strain and the resulting change is aches and pains. Add to that all the other task that they must do as part of their job.
   After spending long periods of time behind the wheel the driver then needs to lift and carry the items they are delivering. Here are some basic tips for reducing stress inside your vehicle:
  • Raise the seat so that your knees are parallel or slightly lower than your hips and your feet can easily reach the pedals without having to move your position.
  • If possible adjust the depth of the seat so that so that you can place 2-3 fingers between the back of your knees and the front of the seat.
  • Adjust your lumbar support until you feel an even pressure along your back from the hips to shoulder height. If your vehicle does not have an adjustable lumbar support you can roll up a small towel and place it in the curve of your back or purchase a lumbar pillow.
  • Adjust your back tilt so that you are slightly reclined and your seat is between 100-110 degrees.
  • Position the steering wheel to keep your elbows as close to your sides as possible so as to minimize reaching. If you cannot recline your seat, take frequent breaks from your upright posture by shifting your weight from side to side and use small upper body motions to relax your back.
  • Adjust the mirrors so you can see clearly without slouching or twisting.
  • Move your hand position on the steering wheel often.
  • Never grip the steering wheel for a long period of time.
  • Do gentle range of motion exercises throughout the day
  • Always use three points of contact when entering or exiting the vehicle.
   Once you safely exit the vehicle using three points of contact take a few moments to do some range of motion exercises to warm up the muscles before gently stretching. While stretching keeps your muscles strong and healthy. Maintaining optimal range of motion in the joints keeps the joints flexible, reduces pain and improves strength and balance. When muscles are not stretched out daily, they can shorten and become tight.
   Then, when you are active, your muscles will be weak and unable to extend, putting you at risk for strains, sprains, joint pain and muscle damage. Reduce the stress on your body by evaluating you’re work space.