The ergo impact of IT on health care

Lower back problems on the rise
Saturday, December 1, 2012
By Pamela Young

Are today’s health care professionals at greater risk for repetitive strain injuries and other musculoskeletal problems than their predecessors?

Yes, says Adam Labelle, an associate ergonomist with workplace furniture and accessories manufacturer, Humanscale, and “a massive IT explosion” is the cause.

More computer-based work time
Technology affects posture as was seen in the last decades of the 20th century when the proliferation of computers in offices produced an upsurge in conditions such as carpal tunnel syndrome.

Employees at health care facilities are now spending more time at work performing computer-based tasks and they are therefore more prone to problems caused by the improper positioning and lighting of this equipment.

Labelle says there are recent studies in which the majority of nurses surveyed reported using an electronic medical record (EMR) system for at least 50 per cent of their shift. Some hospitals have seen as much as a 15 per cent increase in staff reports of musculoskeletal symptoms after EMR adoption. In particular, lower back problems are on the rise.

Multiple users and multiple tasks
Providing ergonomic computer workstations for health care environments can be a challenge. Workstations in any 24-7 facility are bound to be used by different people over the course of three different shifts and often these people are performing many different tasks at a single station. As well, many health care professions have an aging workforce. Labelle says the average age of nurses is now 46.7.

Best practices, he says, include having sit/stand workstations and ensuring staff are trained to adjust them properly.

“A drawback to sit/stand stations is workers are unlikely to adjust them if it’s too complicated to do so.”

The same goes for ergonomic seating, in which the key adjustments are seat height, seat depth, armrest height and lumbar support. Chair adjustment mechanisms that aren’t straightforward and intuitive to use simply won’t get used.

In health care settings as in the corporate world, keyboard trays that provide a slight negative slope are better for keeping carpal tunnel pressure below the critical threshold than horizontally positioned keyboard setups. Ideally, Labelle says the top of a monitor should be positioned at the user’s eye level and the screen should be about an arm’s length away.

Getting the lighting right
Lighting is another important consideration at caregivers’ stations.

Single source overhead lighting schemes are common in these area even though dual source systems that include height-adjustable task lights on the work surface are better, says Labelle.

This is partly because a mix of paper-based and computer-based work is usually performed at these stations and the former requires considerably brighter lighting than the latter. As well, older individuals generally require brighter lighting to perform the same tasks than their younger counterparts. Adjustable-height task lamps offer a simple means of allowing each worker who uses a station to create a comfortably lit environment.

Pamela Young is editor-in-chief of Canadian Facility Management & Design magazine.

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