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Human Resources: Give backbone to OH&S policies

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Cite as: (2009) 83(03) LIJ, p.85


Poor manual handling and ergonomic procedures can have a detrimental effect on the health of office workers.

Occupational health and safety (OH&S) is often considered the province of factory floors and construction sites and it’s sometimes forgotten that there are a range of health and safety risks facing office workers.

Ultimately your employer has an obligation to provide you with a safe work environment in line with the OH&S legislation, but there is a lot you can do as an employee to help minimise your risk.

Maintaining good manual handling and ergonomic work practices is a good place to start.

Manual handling includes a range of common office activities such as typing, lifting anything from a ream of paper or pile of files or documents to office equipment such as a computer monitor, reaching, pushing and pulling of objects, holding, lowering and carrying.1

Prolonged work at a poorly set up workstation, poor posture and/or manual handling practice can lead to a number of injuries including muscle sprains and strains, back injuries, soft tissue injuries to the wrist, arms, shoulders, neck or legs, abdominal hernias, eye strain, headaches and chronic pain.2

To understand how these injuries can develop, it helps to have a basic understanding of the spine.

The spine is the central support of the skeletal system, supporting body weight and allowing flexibility in movement. A healthy spine is S-shaped with three natural curves.

Standing or sitting incorrectly for long periods can put a great deal of pressure on the lower lumbar region as it has to support the weight of the upper body. With any form of pressure comes a high probability of strain or injuries to discs, leading to debilitating back conditions. Disc injuries can be very painful as the nerves contained within close proximity to the spinal cavity can rub against the misplaced disc, causing severe pain.3

To avoid spinal problems, set up workstations taking into account proper ergonomic design and practise safe manual handling techniques.

Workstation set up – some general guidelines

  • adjust your chair so that the backrest supports the lower back. Have your knees bent at about 90 degrees;
  • adjust the height of your chair so that your elbows are level with your desk. If your feet do not reach the floor, use a footrest. Sit with your hips as far back in the chair as possible;
  • your shoulders should be relaxed and your elbows should be close to your body. Your wrists and hands should be straight;
  • keep your keyboard and mouse, and any other objects you need to reach for regularly, close to your body to prevent over reaching;
  • the top of your monitor should be at or just below eye level. If your monitor is too low, use an adjustable stand;
  • remember that laptops were designed to use for short periods of time. If using a laptop for long periods, sit it on an adjustable stand so that the screen is at eye level, and use a separate keyboard and mouse;
  • if you are working at your computer for long periods, take frequent short breaks. Vary your posture frequently by moving, standing, walking and stretching; and
  • refocus your eyes off the computer screen to rest on more distant objects for about 30 seconds every half hour.

Manual handling tips

  • maintain good working posture;
  • follow firm policies and procedures on safe manual handling techniques;
  • size up the load before attempting to lift it;
  • ask for assistance where you doubt the safety of performing a task alone;
  • store heavy items at a low level;
  • always bend your knees when lifting;
  • stretch and exercise; and
  • pilates or another form of core strength exercise is fantastic for posture and for minimising strain on backs.

If you start to feel pain or discomfort, or suffer an injury

  • report the problem or injury to your relevant manager or OH&S representative immediately, and complete an incident report form so that the firm has it on file;
  • review your workstation set up, work patterns and techniques; and
  • if problems continue, consider requesting that your employer arrange for a professional worksite assessment.

Good ergonomics, a well-designed workstation and safe manual handling are crucial in eliminating some of the health hazards associated with office work.

Take a few minutes to assess your current workstation set up and manual handling techniques against the guidelines included in this article, and remember, prevention is always better than cure.


KELLY DERMER is the LIV’s Human Resources consultant. For further information on this column and other HR issues ph 9607 9548 or visit http://www.liv.asn.au/members/hr.

1. See Worksafe Victoria 2006, “Officewise – A guide to health and safety in the office”, http://www.worksafe.vic.gov.au. This is an excellent resource recently updated by the Victorian WorkCover Authority. It is available as a download in PDF and it can also be ordered by contacting ph 9641 1333, fax 9641 1330 or publications@workcover.vic.gov.au.

2. Note 1 above.

3. See Workers Health Centre fact sheet, “Manual handling”, http://www.workershealth.com.au.

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