Decades ago, there was little thought put into how workers interact with their workspace. But one of the positive impacts of fields like organizational psychology is that workspaces have become much more user-friendly – and this is true across all types of work.
Whether you work from your home office, the factory floor, or somewhere in between, the chances are good that you benefit from one type of ergonomic improvement or another. From desk chairs that improve lumbar support to the layout of control buttons in an airplane cockpit that make it easier to make necessary in-flight adjustments, ergonomics has had wide-reaching effects on how we work.
Of course, there’s always room for improvement!
From reducing physical discomfort and mental stress to making work environments safer and more productive, human factors psychology, ergonomics, and organizational psychology have much to offer in terms of suggestions for making a workspace better.
Anyone can learn about ergonomics and apply what they’ve learned, too. Whether you’re a psychology student, a mid-level manager, or a CEO, understanding how to make a work environment more ergonomic allows you to take action and reduce the rate of workplace injuries, burnout, and stress associated with repetitive and inefficient movements.
So, how does one go about making a workspace more ergonomic? A few suggestions are explained below.
Implement Engineering Controls
The Occupational Health and Safety Administration offers a list of engineering controls that company owners and safety coordinators can implement in workplaces like factories.
The first step in using engineering controls to make a workspace more ergonomic is usually an evaluation by an industrial engineer or another type of human factors or ergonomic expert. Typically, these experts will examine a workspace to identify existing problems or potential problems, and then offer suggestions for how to resolve any issues that arise.
For example, a primary area of engineering control deals with moving heavy objects. If a company uses employees to manually move heavy loads, a possible control might be to implement the use of devices for lifting heavy objects. Doing so serves several purposes.
First, using devices like forklifts to move heavy objects reduces the risk of injury for workers due to overexertion. Second, using equipment to move heavy objects can improve efficiency and enables the movement of items to be expedited. And third, by training workers in the use of machinery or other devices to move heavy objects, you’re adding to their training and making them a more valuable and knowledgeable employee.
On top of all that, by reducing the risk of injury, you also reduce the likelihood of employees missing work. This, in turn, minimizes disruptions to production that can hurt the company’s bottom line. All of this is a result of a simple evaluation of the ergonomics of the workspace.
Set Up Administrative and Work Practice Controls
There are also administrative and work practice controls recommended by OSHA for making workspaces more ergonomic. These tips involve the establishment of efficient processes and procedures for workers.
In a factory setting, a worker often has to perform repetitive tasks for long periods of time. This can be extremely tiring and lead to problems that range from poor posture to carpal tunnel syndrome to lower back pain.
To help minimize these and other types of ergonomics-related problems, a control might be put in place to help reduce the level of exertion and repetitiveness of the task. For example, workers might be periodically rotated from one station to the next so they can perform jobs that require different movements and utilize different muscle groups.
Again, implementing controls like this not only helps improve the ergonomics of the workspace, but they also go a long way in improving productivity and minimizing time off due to injury. Employees that have a workspace that is ergonomically designed will also be more comfortable and might have greater job satisfaction as well – both of which are additional positive effects of focusing on ergonomics.
Make Use of Personal Protective Equipment
Another consideration for making a workspace more ergonomic is using personal protective equipment. This includes devices and accessories that reduce the risk of exposure to factors that could lead to an injury.
For example, a machine that vibrates a lot could be outfitted with padding that creates a barrier between the person operating the machine and the machine itself. Another example of personal protective equipment for ergonomics is providing thermal gloves so that employees can touch hot or cold surfaces without getting injured. The thermal gloves should fit properly and allow the worker to correctly grasp items in their hands securely.
Of course, implementing controls to improve the ergonomics of a workspace isn’t limited to factory settings or situations in which someone is using machinery. So what can you do to improve the ergonomics of your workspace if you work in a different kind of setting?
How to Make an Office Space More Ergonomic
If you work in an office setting, there are many different things you can do to improve the functionality of the space and your comfort as you work.
For example, if your job requires you to use a computer all day, consider adding a standing desk to your workspace. Sitting for extended periods of time can lead to all sorts of health issues. According to the Mayo Clinic, obesity, high blood sugar, high blood pressure, and increased body fat around the waist are some of the most common health concerns associated with sitting for too long.
By devising a workspace that allows you to sit or stand, you can help mitigate some of these issues. It’s not unlike the example of rotating workers from one task to another task that was discussed earlier – standing activates different muscle groups and helps keep repetitive motions at bay.
If you’re studying to be an organizational psychologist, you’ll find that a lot of time is spent in front of a computer conducting research, writing reports, and the like. In addition to the health concerns listed above, working at a computer for long periods of time can lead to eye strain, headaches, poor posture, and carpal tunnel syndrome, just to name a few.
Again, creating a workspace that’s more ergonomic can help minimize the risk of these conditions.
For example, the Mayo Clinic suggests that if you work at a computer that the monitor be arm’s length away to get a proper distance between your eyes and the screen. The screen should be positioned such that the top is at about eye level, or perhaps just below. Doing so ensures that you’re looking slightly downward at the screen, which is a neutral and natural position for your head and neck to be in.
Other items like the keyboard and mouse should be placed at a level that allows your wrists to be straight, but slightly below your elbows to reduce strain on that joint. Your chair should allow you to sit up straight with your feet flat on the floor and your legs at a 90-degree angle. Adding a footrest under the desk allows you to move your feet and legs and help relieve the pressure points created by your legs coming into contact with your chair.
Another key tip for improving the ergonomics of your workspace is to simply take frequent breaks.
As discussed earlier, moving people in a factory setting from one task to another helps prevent repetitive motions that can lead to issues like carpal tunnel. Well, in an office setting, taking a break from your normal routine can help get the blood flowing again, give your eyes a rest, and gives you a chance to walk around, stretch, and change your positioning. Of all the tips on this list, this is perhaps the easiest one to implement, as it doesn’t require you to buy any tools or supplies, learn new skills, or the like.
While it can be difficult to get into a new routine in which you take frequent breaks, the benefits of doing so are many. You’ll find that you have more energy, have less aches and pains, and that you’re more productive in the long run.
What Does Lighting Have to Do With Ergonomics?
A major factor in workplace ergonomics is lighting. If you have the right kind of lighting, it will be a more productive and comfortable workspace. If you have the wrong kind of lighting, you might suffer from eye strain, headaches, or both.
When designing a more ergonomic workspace – whether that’s an office or otherwise – you need to keep in mind that you might need different types and amounts of lighting for different tasks.
For example, if you work at a desk and use a computer, avoid having a window behind the monitor. Instead, experts recommend that you position yourself such that your computer is at least three feet away from the window and at a right angle. It’s also recommended that shades be used to reduce the amount of light coming through the window. This helps reduce the difference in the brightness of the windows and your computer screen and can help minimize eye strain.
Another way to make your workspace more ergonomic is to make use of task lighting. Using the same desk-and-computer example from above, when you look at a computer screen and then look down at your desk to read a document, the document on the desk should be well-lit and of roughly equal brightness as your computer screen.
To achieve this, you should add task lighting to your workspace. Task lights offer indirect light that illuminates specific areas, like your desk. By adding task lighting, you brighten the darkest areas of your workspace, which, in turn, reduces the strain on your eyes as you move them from your computer screen to other tasks on your desk.
Whatever you do, don’t rely solely on overhead lighting for your office space. This type of lighting can be very harsh and create deep shadows on your work area that strain your eyes. While it isn’t bad to have overhead lighting (so long as the bulbs are out of your field of view), it isn’t recommended to be your only lighting source.
If you can’t create a work environment in which you don’t have to look at overhead lighting, consider replacing the bulbs with low-glare bulbs or installing a dimmer switch so you can adjust the intensity of the overhead lighting.
Of course, a key part of ergonomics is enhancing the ways in which you interact with technology. So, there’s a few things you can do to make your workspace more comfortable by making adjustments to your computer monitor.
For starters, you should have a monitor that’s large enough, but not so large that it’s overwhelming. This can be a fine line, but the general guideline is that a monitor should be able to display text that’s three times the size of the smallest size text you can read.
Once you have an appropriately-sized monitor, you should crank up the monitor’s contrast, as that will help define characters on the screen more clearly. Likewise, turn up the brightness on the monitor so that it closely matches the brightness of your office.
Related Resource: What Are Psychomotor Skills?
Refer to OSHA’s Guidelines and Stay Updated on Ergonomics Research
According to the United States Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), another way to make a workspace more ergonomic is to keep updated on ergonomics research, guidelines and best practices.
To make this easier, OSHA offers a vast set of resources on its website. The website includes resources for specific types of work environments, such as baggage handling departments at airports and clothing manufacturing facilities. The resources also include guidelines for the prevention of specific types of musculoskeletal injuries in the workplace that can develop as a result from a workspace that is not ergonomically designed.
Knowing how to make a workspace more ergonomic has the potential to increase employee comfort and reduce their rates of injuries. An ergonomic workplace could also be more profitable since fewer injuries mean less absenteeism and a decrease in worker’s compensation claims.
Therefore, understanding, “How do I make my workspace more ergonomic?” is a good start to taking positive actions that benefit employees and business owners alike.
B.A. Social Studies Education | University of Wyoming
M.S. Counseling | University of Wyoming
B.S. Information Technology | University of Massachusetts
Updated October 2021