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Got aches and pains from work? Call an ergonomist

March 3, 2016

Have you ever experienced neck or shoulder pain after a long day at work? Frequent headaches? Sore knees or wrists? Do you feel trapped in a workstation that just doesn’t work for you? If so, it might be time to call an ergonomic expert.
Ergonomics is the science of human factors and the interaction of the human body with its environment in terms of force, frequency, repetition and posture. At Johnson Space Center, that encompasses everything from computer work to highly specialized tasks associated with space flight.
Ellen Lackey is NASA’s only Certified Professional Ergonomist, and it’s her responsibility to ensure that JSC’s employees are both safe and comfortable while doing their jobs.
Lackey and the JSC Safety Action Team’s Ergonomic Committee conduct around 350 ergonomic assessments each year. The majority of the assessments deal with computer workstations and office chairs.
“We want to make sure that you maintain a body posture that is good for your spine, hands and fingers and don’t do jobs that involve creating pressure points or heavy duty repetition,” Lackey said. She and the other JSC ergonomic specialists work with employees to reduce those stresses on the body. “It may be as easy as adjusting a chair so that the spine falls into alignment.”
Adjustability is the key to spending the work day comfortably, but many employees don’t realize that their chairs can be adjusted far beyond the typical up and down. Lackey uses a tape measure, a goniometer (an instrument to measure joint angles), a dynamometer (to measure forces) and her phone camera to survey an individual at their workstation. Proper adjustment of the chair can reduce neck and shoulder strain and prevent nerve damage that could result after months or years of poor posture.
Workstation configuration and height is another common issue. For example, a six-foot employee who moves to a new workstation that is only 26 inches high will be uncomfortable and cramped. Another common problem is a low overhead unit that prevents the monitor from being positioned high enough and forces the employee to look down, causing neck and shoulder strain.
Lackey and the Ergonomic Committee work closely with the furniture group to determine the best furniture for each employee they assess. Their goal is always to fit the furniture to the individual, and not the other way around.
Office ergonomics comprise about 70 percent of their assessments, but Lackey’s true expertise lies in occupational ergonomics. Lackey evaluated also the technicians who sew cargo bags destined for the International Space Station. They had to maneuver fabric through multiple difficult corners on the sewing machine, but the machine’s tension was very high and was causing considerable hand and arm strain to do this task repeatedly. Lackey worked with the manufacturer to inspect and adjust the machines, reducing the tension to make the sewing job much easier. It made a huge difference to the technicians.
To request an ergonomic assessment, fill out the symptom survey found on the JSC Ergonomics Program Web page. Once it’s submitted, Lackey or another ergonomic specialist will make an appointment to visit your worksite. The visit takes about 30 minutes, and many times the problem can be solved before the specialist leaves. Afterward, Lackey will prepare a report for the employee and their supervisor. If needed, she will coordinate with the furniture department to change or repair furniture or recommend accessories to reduce workplace physical stresses.
“Your best posture is your next posture.” That’s the mantra used by ergonomists at JSC as they work to educate employees about the dangers of sitting still for too long during the day. “Get up and move,” Lackey said. “Walk around every 60 to 90 minutes, get some water, stretch your muscles and move your body.” A brochure on the Safety, Health and Environment Web page shows stretching exercises recommended for desk workers.
For Lackey, the best part of her job is the people. “I get a lot of satisfaction in helping people stay healthy and well,” she said.
Michelle Fraser-Page
NASA Johnson Space Center
JSC ergonomist Ellen Lackey checks wrist joint angle during an ergonomic assessment. Image Credit: NASA/Bill Stafford
JSC ergonomist Ellen Lackey checks wrist joint angle during an ergonomic assessment. Image Credit: NASA/Bill Stafford