The ultimate goal of ergonomics is to prevent repetitive injuries and maximize work efficiency. But its benefits can extend to lower sick leave, fewer disability cases, and the increased morale of your dispatching staff.
Repetitive injuries can occur when a body part-most commonly a shoulder, elbow, wrist or finger-performs the same motion over and over during the workday. While the human body is quite resilient, if these movements is outside the body's normal movement range, just a few year's work can permanently damage joints, tendons and nerves.
But it's not enough to simply purchase ergonomic furniture. You also have to position the furniture and assemble the other elements into a workspace that fits your work flow, preserves the employee's health, and makes the employee feel at home.
Your first step in improving a dispatcher's workspace is simple-ask your dispatchers how their workspace might be improved. They may have some very simple suggestions that could be inexpensively implemented.
You should also consult with your medical insurance carrier for more specific ideas on how you can improve the ergonomics of your operation. They may also be able to familiarize you with state and federal regulations or laws that apply to your employees.
You should know that the federal Occupational and Safety Administration (OSHA) has released a draft of ergonomic regulations for public comment. They apply to the manufacturing and material handling industries, but also to other companies where a hazard has been identified or after an injury has been reported. The regulations could become law in early 2000, and are posted on-line now at www.osha.gov.
To get started, we'll assemble the individual pieces that make up a dispatcher's workstation, focus on arranging them for maximum efficiency, and then adjust the entire set-up according to advice of experts.
Ideally, all the furniture should be adjustable, so it works together to put your body in the proper position to type, write, or answer the telephone. However, if your budget can't accommodate a full set of adjustable furniture, your first choice in adjustable furniture should be an ergonomic chair.
Your comfort-and continued health-is very dependent upon the position of your body as you're seated. Your neck, back, hips, legs, arms and hands are all positioned according to the size, angle and position of the chair you use.
Any chair you purchase should be sturdy enough to take the abuse of a round-the-clock operation. Office chairs are simply not designed to be used more than 40 hours a week, although some premium models might qualify.
Chairs, like human beings, come in differing sizes. Larger size chairs are not only wider, but are adjustable within a range of higher elevations. You should consider purchasing more than one size of chair to accommodate the differing heights and weights of your dispatchers.
Lastly, each part of the chair should be adjustable for height and/or angle: the arms, the back and the seat. When you're evaluating chairs, examine how the adjustments work, what you have to loosen and tighten, if the adjustments are in steps or are continuous. Also check on the warranty supplied with the chair and if spare parts are available.
There are as many chair designs as there are designers. Some have high backs, some low. Other chairs have seat springs, while others use material stretched over a frame to provide comfort. All these design elements contribute to comfort, but the colors, fabrics and general design of the chair should be secondary to its adjustability.
The next most important element of ergonomics is a work surface that can be properly adjusted and arranged. Workstations are a popular item of furniture now, and many manufacturers offer suites that integrate desks, keyboard shelves, partitions and storage compartments. But you can also assemble these items yourself to create a very efficient space.
The most sophisticated desks can be adjusted up and down to accommodate sitting or standing work positions. Some of these desks are motor-driven to make quick adjustments, while others require a hand crank and take a bit longer to move. You'll have to consider price, the number of persons working per day, and your ergonomic needs to determine which style you need.
The work surface should be smooth and durable, and should wrap slightly around to allow easy access to items on the desk. Workstations that are U-shaped, or that have a slight cut-out, put desktop items within easy reach, which reduces the chance of a sprain or strain while over-reaching.
If your dispatcher uses a keyboard for data entry, check if the desk has an integrated or add-on keyboard shelf. An adjustable shelf, while not as ergonomic as a fully adjustable desk, will help put the dispatcher's hands and arms in a safer position to prevent repetitive injuries.
If you have an automated dispatching operation, you have other considerations besides the placement of the keyboard-the video display.
Your employees' vision will help determine the set-up for the terminal. First, you should try to obtain the largest display for the area-17 and 19-inch computer displays are becoming the minimum standard size.
Next, position the display at least 16 inches away from the dispatcher's face, to minimize potential health hazards from static electricity, attracted dust and possible eletromagnetic hazards. The display should be positioned just slightly below eye level for the most comfortable neck position.
Before you move in the desk and chair, do some evaluation: how does your dispatching operation fit in with your day-to-day work?
Examine the flow of people and paperwork around the office. Does your dispatcher also perform public counter duties? Do drivers and office personnel frequently need face-to-face contact to conduct business?
You don't want to hide your dispatcher in a back room, but you also don't want to place the operation in an area full of distractions and noise, where they can't hear the radio or telephone. The location must be a balance between the necessity to interact with other employees, to receive and pass along the necessary paperwork, to use copiers and fax machines, and your need to provide the dispatcher with a workspace where they can concentrate and perform their best.
Items that are frequently used should be placed at desktop height. Less-used files and office equipment should be placed to discourage a dispatcher from twisting, turning or bending to reach it.
While you're considering the location, look up and check the lighting. Is it bright enough for desk work? Does it create glare on computer screen? Is it adjustable to accommodate different dispatchers' preferences? And does it allow the nightshift dispatcher to "tone down" the lighting?
Most modern offices use fluorescent overhead lights that provide adequate brightness over a wide area. But this type of lighting is usually not connected to dimmers to adjust the amount of light, and can be very irritating to some people's eyes. The broad coverage of fluorescent reflectors often makes glare a major issue for computer users.
On the other hand, incandescent lighting can be focused and aimed much more precisely, and many workers find it has more pleasant color that doesn't flicker.
Also look over your shoulder, to see if lighting beyond and behind the workstation creates a glare for the dispatcher. Public counters are notorious glare sources, as the dispatcher sits in office lighting and gazes out into the sunlight. In the long term, direct or reflected glare off a computer screen could cause health problems for your employees.
Likewise, you should check the airflow around the workstation to see if it's near air conditioning outlets or inlets. Employees who work in the midst of a draft will not only be uncomfortable, but could be subject to increased illness or allergic reactions because of the airborne materials swirling around them.
One of the most important pieces of workplace equipment is the telephone, and it can be a significant source of repetitive injuries. Scientific studies-and common sense-say that cradling a telephone handset between your head and shoulder can lead to neck, shoulder and back problems.
The obvious solution is a telephone headset. In the old days, headsets were worn only by telephone operators and cost $200 or more. Today, the headset is a corporate mainstay, and there are several models designed for small businesses that cost less than $100. They plug into existing telephone equipment, are lightweight and make writing, typing and retrieving paperwork very easy while talking on the telephone.
Now that you've assembled the furniture and equipment, it's time to sit down and begin adjusting your workstation for optimum comfort and safety. The adjustments you make will depend very much on how much your equipment can be moved up, down and sideways.
Upon first sitting down, raise or lower the chair so that your feet are flat on the ground, and your thighs are horizontal to the floor. The chair back should be sufficiently upright so that your spine is virtually straight up and down. Any armrests should gently support your forearms at their optimum position, but not bear their full weight.
Now, slide your chair in to the desk top. If your desktop is not adjustable, you might have to raise or lower your chair to obtain a good hand-to-desk position. If the desktop is adjustable, or you have an adjustable keyboard shelf, adjust those components and leave the chair as is.
With non-adjustable desktops, you may have to raise your chair so that your feet are off the ground. You'll have to compensate for this with a footrest that provides support for both feet. Never let your legs dangle off the chair, or you'll cut off leg circulation and may promote nerve damage.
The optimum position for your hands is slightly below your elbows. Your hands should never be positioned so they're higher than your elbows, because that will put tension on your wrists when you write or type.
The angle of your wrists is most important-when writing or typing your hands should be a straight extension of your forearms. They should never be angled up or down, or pointed in or out in relation to your forearm, or you could very easily inflame the nerves running through the carpal tunnel of the wrist.
The easiest way to give your desktop a final check is to put your elbows at your side, and then raise both hands as if someone said, "Stick'em up!" Now close your eyes and simply lower your hands slowly until they rest on the desktop or keyboard. That is the most comfortable and healthy position for your hands. Now, open your eyes and see how close your desk or keyboard comes to this optimum position.
Once you've accomplished these steps, your dispatcher can step in a begin working. But be sure to follow up on the set-up of the workstation, to insure it's meeting your goals of providing dispatchers a safe and comfortable place to work