Take those aches and pains seriously


Paul Hokanson, environmental health and safety, performs an ergonomics check on an office chair. Photo by Christopher Gannon.

When you were a kid and your mom told you to sit up straight at the dinner table, you probably groaned and begrudgingly shifted upright in the chair. As working adults, Mom isn't around to remind us to have good posture in our offices and labs, and we're paying the price with aching backs, stiff necks, sore fingers and throbbing shoulders.

These ailments -- called musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) -- affect the body's movement or musculoskeletal system (i.e., muscles, tendons, ligaments, nerves, discs, blood vessels, etc.). MSDs are common in workplaces across the country. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, they are the single largest category of workplace injuries and are responsible for almost 30 percent of all workers' compensation costs.

The good news is MSDs are preventable. Even better news for Iowa State employees is that environmental health and safety (EHS) offers help to stave off those pesky aches and pains.  

"We really want people to be physically comfortable during their workday, as this can affect their job contentment and productivity," said Paul Hokanson, industrial hygienist in EHS.

Help is available

EHS offers employees three options to help relieve physical pain and discomfort.

  1. Online ergonomics resources, including Iowa State's program and links to other resources. Information is available on myriad topics, including proper lifting techniques, products and equipment, and workstation arrangements.
  2. Online courses ("Office Ergonomics" and "Laboratory Ergonomics"): These free, 30-minute courses describe how to set up ergonomic workstations and offer tips for lab employees. The courses are available in the EHS catalog at Learn@ISU.
  3. Workplace ergonomics evaluation: If these two free options offer no relief, individuals may request a workplace ergonomics evaluation, which costs $249 (payable by the employee's department) and requires supervisor approval. Complete an ergonomics questionnaire to begin the process.

An evaluation involves Hokanson observing employees' postures, work habits and workstations to determine what changes or equipment could ease their discomfort. Following the observation, Hokanson provides recommendations.

"Some of those recommendations may be that they acquire a new keyboard tray for better arm position, change the height of the computer monitor or use an ergonomic mouse," he said.

Common complaints

Hokanson said most complaints from Iowa State employees stem from poor workstation setup and repetitive motion. Discomfort in arms and wrists from mouse or keyboard use are the most common ailments.

Lab employees are at risk for repetitive motion injuries from pipetting -- the process of using a thumb to draw fluid into a small tube and transferring the fluid to a different tube or vessel. Doing this over and over often results in aching thumbs, Hokanson said.

Don't delay

Employees experiencing physical discomfort in their workspaces should take action sooner rather than later, Hokanson said.

"We can provide a lot of information so people can make corrections in their workstation or lab before they reach a point where they have discomfort," he said.