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University Environmental Health and Safety offers a range of online self-help resources and in-person assessments

Feb. 25, 2015

Talking with the ergonomic experts with University Environmental Health and Safety at IU is like a chatting with Mythbusters. Stability balls make lousy office chairs? Whaaat? Standing desks can cause long-term problems, too? No way!

Stability balls, they say, provide a nice workout for abs but they don’t give back muscles a chance to rest, which can result in slouching or soreness. Standing all day puts a lot of pressure on hips, knees and ankles. And we’ve all heard that sitting is the new smoking.

What’s an employee to do?

Desk assessment

University Environmental Health and Safety offers a range of online self-help resources and in-person assessments to help employees fine-tune their work environment. | PHOTO BY CHAZ MOTTINGER, IU COMMUNICATIONS

“Generally speaking, our bodies weren’t designed to be still. We were meant to move,” said Kathryn Manteuffel, director of Environmental Health and Safety for IU’s regional campuses. “Changing our body position and getting blood flowing is very important. We encourage micro-breaks -- employees may still be working but get out of their chair to stretch and change how the body interacts with the workstation. This is probably the most valuable thing people can do to reduce stress, strain and fatigue.”

University Environmental Health and Safety offers a range of online self-help resources and in-person assessments to help employees fine-tune their work environment whether it’s a desk job, housekeeping or other scenario, such as providing health care.  

Many IU employees have already learned of these services through Healthy IU Lunch-n-Learn programs. At IUPUI and IU Bloomington, EHS staff conducted more than 600 workstation assessments and around 300 chair showings last year. And now, with the recent hires of two Environmental Health and Safety specialists, these types of services are available at all of the regional campuses. Previously, they were available on a limited basis.

IU takes your seat very seriously

Chris Mahalek, manager of industrial hygiene/occupational safety for Environmental Health and Safety-IUPUI, compares the importance of a well-fit work chair to a comfortable mattress.

“You want a good bed because you're sleeping in it for eight hours,” he said. “Well, you're sitting in your chair for eight hours, so you want a good one."

He and Rebecca Bratt, director of Environmental Health and Safety-IUPUI, discussed the benefits of proper ergonomics as they sat in their “showroom,” surrounded by an assortment of office chairs and sit-stand desks.

In recent years, IU’s Office of Procurement Services and University Architects Office have taken a new approach to office chairs, requiring employees to use one of 10 or so “EHS-approved” chairs that have been evaluated to meet the needs of most employees. The selection includes a variety of chairs that can accommodate people of all shapes and sizes.

Employees can now “test drive” chairs before they are ordered by going to certain locations on each campus. Lisa Gooch, training coordinator at Environmental Health and Safety-Bloomington, said adjustments can make existing chairs fit more comfortably -- which is worth checking out since new chairs can range from around $300 to more than $1,000. The quality of the chairs pays off in durability and long-term health benefits, the experts say. Aches and pains, such as sore shoulders, sometimes are caused by misfit chairs.

"I have people come in and try out a big and tall chair and tell me, ‘It’s the first time I’ve ever sat in a chair that feels like it's a good fit -- and comfortable,’" Gooch said.

DIY ergonomics

The self-help resources can help employees fix some problems on their own – providing guidance on what are described as the most common offenders: Computer monitors at the wrong height and distance; keyboards improperly placed; chairs improperly adjusted and employees leaning too far forward.

Arms, for example, should be at a 90 degree angle when typing, with the forearm parallel to the floor. Can you touch your monitor with your fingertips -- while sitting back in your chair? If not, you have some tweaking to do.

Ergonomics, said Manteuffel, is really about designing work stations that fit the worker and his or her tasks, not having the worker fit the work station.

When she conducts assessments, she can often look at a workstation and tell which hand is the employee’s dominant hand. The telephone, for example, will sit in reach of the dominant hand. A “pile of stuff” lies on the other side of the keyboard. Manteuffel said it’s important to mix it up. 

“I’m known for making recommendations to individuals such as moving a phone to the opposite side of the desk to encourage movement on both sides,” she said. “Employees can look at the balance themselves, see if they have movement on both sides.”  

The online resources are helpful but sometimes employees need an extra set of eyes to evaluate chair fit and to assist with adjustments. Employees can check out the campus chair and desk display sites or request an assessment. Sometimes assessments can be as satisfying for the ergonomics expert as they are helpful for the employee.

"You conduct an evaluation and you see that someone is physically in pain and you make some adjustments and they say, ‘Oh, that's great,’” Bratt said. “And then several days later you get an email thanking you and saying that they feel so much better. It's so rewarding."

Information by campus for chair and desk displays:

  • IU Northwest. To request an ergonomic evaluation, contact Kathryn Manteuffel, regional director of University Environmental Health and Safety, at 219-981-4230 and kmanteuf@iun.edu. To see pre-approved chair options, contact Jackie Peyton at 219-981-5693 and jlpeyton@iun.edu. Chairs are in the Office of Administration, Lindenwood Hall room 418.
  • IU South Bend. To request an ergonomic evaluation, contact Kellene Quillen, environmental health and safety specialist, at 574-520-4575 and kvquille@iu.edu. To see pre-approved chair options, contact Facilities Management at 574-520-4386. Chairs are in Facilities Management, Purdue Technology Building room 156.
  • IU Kokomo. To request an ergonomic evaluation, contact Quillen. To see pre-approved chair options, contact Eva Howe at 765-455-9233 and ehowe@iu.edu. Chairs are in Purchasing, Main Building room 079.
  • IU East. To request an ergonomic evaluation, contact Jon Hoffman, environmental health and safety specialist, at 812-941-2989 and jonahoff@indiana.edu. To see pre-approved chair options, contact Gail Smoker or Brenda Taggart at 765-973-8254 or 765-973-8423. Chairs are in the Physical Facilities Department, Springwood Hall.
  • IU Southeast. To request an ergonomic evaluation or see pre-approved chair options, contact Hoffman. Chairs are in the Hausfeldt Building room 127.
  • IUPUI: To request an ergonomic evaluation, contact Chris Mahalek, manager of industrial hygiene and occupational safety, at 317-274-5248 and ehs@iupui.edu. The ergonomic display room is on the fourth floor of Lockefield Village.
  • IU Bloomington: To request an ergonomic evaluation, fill out the online form. The ergonomic display room is located at 1514 E. Third St.

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