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Topics > Healthy Outlook > Many Work Injuries are Avoidable

Many Work Injuries are Avoidable

Published by Contra Costa Times

Posted on Wed., July 8, 2009
By Steven Garcia

IF YOU SIT at a desk all day, you've probably experienced your share of back, shoulder or neck pain. You may have seen diagrams showing you how to sit at your desk, but those diagrams fail to consider most of us don't sit still while we work.

When we turn away from our monitor, we're shifting and redistributing our weight. This can throw us out of our ideal posture and lead to "cumulative trauma disorders," which are injuries caused by repetitive tasks or awkward postures.

You can avoid injury—such as nerve, muscle, or tendon damage—by adopting practices that reduce risks and take advantage of natural body movements. The goal is to minimize risk by improving stability, support and clearance.

Stability and Support

When sitting at a desk, you have two bases of support: your feet and your hips. Try taking your feet off the ground and notice how your spine adjusts to bear the extra weight.

Over time, this could accelerate degenerative changes in the spine. This may result in a variety of spinal problems, ranging from low-back muscle strain to a ruptured disc. So keep your feet on the ground or on a foot rest.


Many workplaces are designed to fit the job, not the worker. Buying ergonomic accessories can help, but you must also know how to use them.

Start with your chair. A properly adjusted chair will support your lower back and promote good posture. A poorly adjusted chair will interfere with one or both of your bases of support.

Consider the following when configuring your chair:

  • Your knees should be slightly lower than your hips with a clearance of about three fingers from the inside of your knee to the front edge of the seat.
  • Your feet should easily reach the floor or footrest.
  • Your backrest should be angled so your lower back is supported, and the three normal curves of the spine are maintained.

Another aspect of clearance is making things easily accessible. You can achieve this through better organization and correct surface height. The height or your work space is critical in preventing injuries, particularly in your arms, hands and wrists.

Follow these steps to minimize injury:

  • Keep frequently used items within easy reach.
  • Keep your work keyboard and writing surface at waist level to 2 inches below your elbows, sitting or standing.
  • Keep enough room for your feet and knees to rest comfortably.
  • Keep heavy items—like binders and dictionaries—in areas that don't require an upward reach. Position your monitor at or below eye level to relieve stress on your eyes and neck.
  • Adjust lighting to reduce screen glare.
  • Ideally, your keyboard and mouse should rest on a keyboard tray in a negative (down and away) tilt to avoid wrist flexion, which can cause tendinitis or carpal tunnel syndrome.

Correct sitting, position and clearance may save you a lot of pain later. Another key point in minimizing work-related injuries is to take hourly 1-3 minute breaks or to rotate tasks.

If any injury persists for more than one week, consult your doctor. The earlier a disorder is diagnosed, the better chance you have for a quick recovery.

Garcia is an industrial occupational therapist for Contra Costa Health Services.

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