Ergonomics and Occupational Therapy: Improving Workplace Productivity

By Ashley Opp

Savvy business owners and employers are becoming increasingly proactive in preventing work-related injuries, retaining employees, and increasing workers' comfort and productivity. To compete in the marketplace and protect their most valuable resource—employees—they consult occupational therapy practitioners who specialize in workplace ergonomics. These practitioners evaluate the work environment and make practical recommendations.

"Ergonomics is the science of matching work environments to fit the physiological, psychological, and cognitive capabilities of the worker," says occupational therapist Jill J. Page, an industrial rehabilitation consultant with ErgoScience, Inc., in Birmingham, Alabama. Occupational therapy practitioners recognize that they may not be able to entirely eliminate hazards in the workplace, but they can identify and minimize workers' exposure to them.

Practitioners provide a wide range of workplace consultative services, such as helping employers to comply with the requirements of the American with Disabilities Act, evaluating and modifying tool and equipment design, and determining and reducing injury risk factors. For workers who have had an injury, occupational therapy practitioners can help them to return to work faster, increase their comfort, and suggest modifications to regain productivity.

Occupational therapy practitioners apply their ergonomics expertise in workplace environments ranging from white-collar offices to hospitals to manufacturing plants. "Ergonomics really crosses all aspects of employment," says Page, from workstation design in an office setting to the physical demands of industrial work. The recommendations that occupational therapy practitioners make in these work environments are equally varied and extensive, and could include advice on minimizing auditory distractions, changing the lighting, or helping a worker organize tasks so that he or she can complete a job with less stress.

One reason occupational therapy practitioners are so qualified to perform ergonomics consultation is that the core of their education is task analysis. "We are taught to break activity down to its very basic nature," says Page. "We could look at a worker shoveling and break that down into the physical demands of that task, such as standing, stooping, reaching, lifting, and handling." Post-graduation, occupational therapists specializing in ergonomics usually acquire additional training in the field.

Although adept at breaking down activities, occupational therapy practitioners don't just reduce everything to its components. "Occupational therapy practitioners are excellent for this type of work because we look at the broader spectrum of the person," says Page. "We have a holistic approach to addressing the person rather than just a job or process. That helps everybody, from the employer to the individual."

Evaluations typically are done just once and, although the process can vary, it follows the same essential pattern. For example, someone working in an office who suffered a back injury outside of work and is trying to return to work might have trouble with sustained sitting. The occupational therapy practitioner would visit the work site and look at the workstation. He or she might notice a bad chair. Although the chair might be changed or adjusted, if the worker can sit only for a short time and the job requires constant sitting, a problem still exists. An occupational therapy practitioner can modify the workstation so the person can do a combination of sitting and standing, or the practitioner might recommend the use of a dynamic stand that allows the employee to work without being in a sitting position. Often, "the ability to move, take mini-breaks, or adjust a position will allow someone to still be productive in their work environment," says Page. "It's just not in your traditional 'sitting-at-your-desk' mode."

The person or organization that typically refers or requests an ergonomics evaluation or intervention depends on the point at which someone identifies a need or a problem. An employer, insurance company, physician, or case manager can request or recommend a consultation. If the case is patient-specific, the referral will follow more of a medical model. "If there is somebody you're trying to get back to work, but there's a difficulty with, say, sustained sitting, the case manager, the physician, or-if the person is in therapy-the treating therapist, may identify that the work-site evaluation needs to occur," says Page. In other cases, workers' compensation insurance companies or upper management might require an ergonomics consultation. The typical cost for an evaluation depends on the geographical location of the work site and can range from $75 to $250 per hour.

Employers sometimes hesitate to bring an ergonomics expert onboard to analyze their work site out of fear that implementing changes will be prohibitively expensive. "There's sometimes the initial perception that you're opening a can of worms with ergonomic interventions," says Page, "but often occupational therapists can identify a problem and make adjustments with the existing equipment." Occupational therapy practitioners gather all possible information so they can understand why a business requires what it requires of its workers, and they look for the most cost-effective solution. "People don't want recommendations that are unrealistic or that can't be implemented," says Page.

A worker—any worker—can depend on occupational therapy practitioners to honestly evaluate the functionality of his or her work. As Page puts it, "The depth of our expertise can't be overestimated."

Ashley Opp is AOTA's senior staff writer.

Find an Occupational Therapy Practitioner

Physicians, case managers, and other medical professionals can refer you to occupational therapy practitioners in your area who specialize in ergonomics. Other sources for locating an occupational therapist include colleagues, family members, and friends who have received occupational therapy services, as well as your local telephone directory.

For More Information

Ergonomics: Occupational Therapy in the Workplace

Returning to Work After an Injury