How Work Simplification and Ergonomics Can Help With Chronic Pain

Work simplification describes the making of daily tasks easier in order to reduce strain or to decrease the amount energy required to complete an activity.

A woman typing on a specialized keyboard
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Occupational therapists often combine energy conservation and work simplification techniques for people with chronic pain conditions, such as arthritis or fibromyalgia.

Work simplification techniques range from low-tech (such as using no-scrub cleaners) to high-tech (such as using voice recognition software for typing).

Some other examples include:

  • Using an automated can opener instead of the manual version.
  • Lengthening a short handle on a dustpan to avoid bending.
  • Using pre-pressed clothes that eliminate the need for ironing.
  • Sliding heavy objects or using a wheeled cart to avoid lifting.
  • Putting an automatic toilet cleaner in the bowl.

Work simplification can be useful for people who wish to remain independent for as long as possible, even if they have a chronic health condition.

What Is Ergonomics?

Much like work simplification, a goal of ergonomics is to decrease strain.

Ergonomics, or human factors engineering, involves the study of the physical and cognitive demands of the workplace environment to ensure safe and optimal working conditions. Ergonomic experts strive to limit fatigue, injury, and discomfort by improving the design of workstations, equipment, and procedures.

Ergonomics in Workstation Design

Tools, procedures, and workstations need designs that prevent awkward posturing. Repetitive or prolonged awkward posturing can lead to musculoskeletal problems and other issues.

Typically, the workplace is designed to limit excessive amounts of the following:

  • Finger extension or abduction
  • Neck or trunk movements
  • Wrist movements
  • Elbow flexion
  • Shoulder elevation and rotation
  • Squatting

With workstation design, your hands should be working between waist and shoulder height. Furthermore, heavy objects shouldn't be lifted above the waist.

Supports for your arms should be rounded and soft. If your arms need support for long periods of time, hard and sharp surfaces should be avoided. Improper support can contribute to injuries of the tendons, muscles, ligaments, and bones. Soft tissue injury resulting in sore points is common when arm supports are inadequate.

A very important aspect of workstation design is that you should be able to access all your tools, controls, keyboards and supplies without continuous leaning, bending or twisting. Moreover, to reduce neck, shoulder and lower back injury, anything that you're working with should be within the reach of your forearm and not require too much movement of your shoulders.

The regular operation of machinery should require as little stress on you as possible. Ideally, the machinery should do the work and you should do the thinking and controlling. To this end, it may be useful to employ switches, levers, pedals, and joysticks as needed.

If you are constantly viewing something, this visual target should be placed at eye level or within 45 degrees below eye level.

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Article Sources
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  • Rempel DM, Janowitz IL. Ergonomics & the Prevention of Occupational Injuries. In: LaDou J, Harrison RJ. eds. CURRENT Diagnosis & Treatment: Occupational & Environmental Medicine, 5e. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2013.