co-working space

Focus on workplace wellness elevates ergonomics

Human factors play natural role in people-centred design interventions
Wednesday, January 24, 2018
By Michelle Ervin

There is a natural role for ergonomics to play in workplace interventions as organizations increasingly look to improve employee well-being, said Lucy Hart, certified ergonomist, Global Furniture Group. The science considers how to optimize the performance of people by taking into account their capabilities and limitations in the context of their environment, she explained, speaking in an IIDEX seminar last fall.

Hart highlighted some staggering statistics that may help illuminate why organizations have moved to prioritize employee well-being, including that around three-quarters of workers reported in a global study that their physical well-being was suffering. What’s more, she pointed out that people represent roughly 90 per cent of business operating costs.

“We’re a body of workers who are spending more than half of our waking hours in a work environment, we cost a ton of money … and, apparently, we are really struggling in terms of our physical well-being,” said Hart.

The WELL Building Standard was something of a harbinger of the current fervor for health and well-being in the workplace. Hart identified it as the first people-centred standard for the built environment, factoring in comfort and fitness as it did. Similar certifications, such as Fitwel, have closely followed.

The WELL Building Standard sets out physical and visual ergonomic requirements, which include benchmarks for providing height-adjustable computer monitors and workstations. It also sets out optional features that count toward certification, including active furnishings, which deals with providing equipment such as treadmill desks.

Hart observed that even LEED, a complementary certification that focuses on environmentally sustainable design, was re-calibrated in its latest version to bring new emphasis to how building performance affects building occupants, among other updates. She cited the decision to make human health and well-being one of its seven objectives as evidence of a paradigm shift.

“Yes, there is that concern about the environment, but the building is for people in which to work, which costs a lot of money, and we need to do more to support the people in that environment,” she said.

That said, the future of a pilot credit for ergonomic strategy, which can earn a project one point on the LEED scorecard, remains uncertain, said Hart. It was added to the U.S. Green Building Council’s pilot credit library in 2009 after a project claimed a point for innovation with its ergonomic strategy, but saw low uptake.

Hart was part of a team that revised the poorly adopted pilot credit in 2013 to improve its usability. The new version outlines a step-by-step process for earning the associated point, which includes consulting with experts. At some point, it will either be made permanent or purged from the U.S. Green Building Council’s pilot credit library.

However, Hart added that points-based systems aren’t the only way to go about incorporating ergonomic principles into projects.

“Building standards are one way of doing that, but it’s not necessary to be pursuing certification,” she said. “They can be used as resources to create these thoughtful, human-focused spaces.”

The CSA offers further guidance on integrating ergonomics in the workplace through Z1004-12 (R2017), a management and implementation standard, as well as CSA Z412-17, an application standard for workplace ergonomics published late last year. Although the principles can be applied at any stage in the design-build process, from functional program through to post-occupancy, ideally people would be considered upfront in the planning process as project goals are established, said Hart.

She added that people’s needs should be evaluated before decisions are made about aspects of a project such as how much space to allocate to employees and what type of furniture to support them with. Based on her experience with customers, she said common pitfalls in furniture selection are predetermining what to buy for reasons such as aesthetics and shopping for products without enough information about how employees work, such as whether computer users rely on any other tools.

Once a project is ready for occupancy, education is critical to the adoption and proper use of new furniture. Hart cited the sit-to-stand workstation as a case in point. She said a study found that people who were poorly trained to use this equipment neglected to take advantage of the ability to adjust the height of their workstations, while people who were well-trained to use this type of equipment captured the benefits of decreased discomfort and increased performance that come from alternating between seated and standing positions.

Benefits such as decreased discomfort are the types of results that should be measured following implementation. Hart suggested comparing data including facilities management complaints before and after the project.

As ergonomics enjoys an elevated profile, buoyed by the current focus of organizations on employee wellness in the workplace, the decision to incorporate its principles into the design-build process should be automatic from Hart’s point of view.

“As long as it’s still humans doing the work in the workplace, not robots, we’re beyond needing to have a big debate, ‘Should we or shouldn’t we?’” she said.

Michelle Ervin is the editor of Canadian Facility Management & Design.

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