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Call Center/CRM Management Scope
March 2002

Ergonomics For Call Centers

By Daniel Eisman, HealthyComputing.com

One year ago, ergonomics was everywhere. CNN articles featured endless analyses of OSHA's proposed workplace regulations, which would have required extensive ergonomic standards and practices in most U.S. workplaces. Labor groups supported it as a protection of workers' rights, while many businesses saw it as an intrusion into their factories and offices and an economic anathema. In any case, the point was moot ' on March 20, 2001, President Bush used a little-known law called the Congressional Review Act to kill the legislation. Like that, legislated ergonomics was history.

But the cost and frequency of injuries hasn't decreased in the absence of regulations. In fact, the void has left many companies with the same injuries, but fewer guidelines on how to deal with them. Call centers must now try to establish their own training and prevention programs without any cohesive national standards.

Securing your call center against computer-related hazards should be a primary concern. The cost of even a single claim can far exceed the price of ergonomic enhancements for an entire call center, so an early proactive stance on prevention can save thousands of dollars by preventing even a single injury.

Budget Ergonomics
Good ergonomics is ultimately good economics. But ergonomics requires a long-term view toward cost-cutting and injury prevention, and it's often hard to justify changes in the short term. In a depressed economy, companies cut short-term expenses to stay in the black, even if this doesn't provide the best long-term solution. They'll often look to alternative or low-cost methods, such as group training (as opposed to individual/personalized training), and a shift from purchasing big-ticket items (such as chairs) to smaller accessories, such as glare screens and headsets.

So how can you reduce the risk of computer-related injuries while staying under budget? First, realize that ergonomics is not just about products ' good usage habits and proper workstation setup are half the battle. Getting your employees to sit further from their monitors or add a footrest to support dangling feet may be all you need to reduce the frequency of headaches and lower back pain. Following are some guidelines to offer your employees.

Ergonomic Guidelines
Watch your posture and keep 'open' angles. Many people imagine that a perfectly upright position is ideal, yet sitting at 90 degree angles actually increases the loading on muscles in your lower back. Try to sit slightly reclined, and keep your elbows at open angles (100 to 110 degrees). Make sure that your arms are close to your body and relaxed; this can help reduce the likelihood of neck and shoulder pain.

Change positions periodically and take short breaks. Staying in one position for too long can increase the stress on muscles and joints, leading to discomfort and fatigue. Taking 'micro-breaks,' even a walk to the water cooler after 30 minutes in front of a computer, can help break this cycle. Moving will also promote good circulation and improve comfort. Remember that there isn't one 'best' position in which to sit; change positions frequently throughout the day.

Learn to recognize the symptoms of injury. It's important to realize the early signs of a developing injury. If caught in time, most problems are almost entirely reversible through a change in habits or hardware. People sometimes overlook common symptoms, however, or don't associate them with computer use. For instance, glare on your monitor can lead to headaches, a problem most people wouldn't think to trace back to computer use. Learn the common symptoms of computer-related maladies and catch the little problems before they become big ones.

Prioritize your accessories. In many cases, ergonomic products can help you achieve proper positioning or prevent maladies. But what should you purchase if your call center is on a limited budget? The most important accessory to acquire is a good chair, followed closely by an adjustable keyboard tray and a good anti-glare filter. Your chair should be adjustable for height, lumbar support and tilt (many chairs offer additional adjustments), while the keyboard tray should be at least height- and position-adjustable. (In a crowded call center, you may want to consider a tray that slides under the desk to save space.) In anti-glare filters, look for high-quality, circular-polarizing glass versions.

Providing your workstations with these basic accessories will not only improve comfort, but can also help prevent injuries or fatigue. There are literally thousands of ergonomic products; after you have secured the basics, you may want to look at specialized products for your unique environment. In call centers, one of the most common additions is the telephone headset, which helps reduce the potential for neck and shoulder discomfort.

Learn more about ergonomics. Ergonomics is relative. People are built differently, which means that the right chair height for one person may not be correct for another. There are a variety of books, pamphlets, videos and Web sites for ergonomics information, and being informed is the most important step you can take to ensure your comfort. Some individuals may even require specialized tips (for instance, people with bifocals need to place their monitors lower than everyone else), so take time to learn which setup fits you best.

Ergonomics For Call Center Managers
So what can you, as a call center manager, do to further ensure workplace safety? After you've made sure that your employees are properly trained, have made them aware of the dangers, feel assured they understand the risks, and have taught them how to avoid problems through proper work habits, take a look at the things that they can't change. Look at your workplace with an eye toward lighting and illumination. Are employees' monitors placed close to glare-producing windows? Are their cubicle depths so short they are forced closer to their screens?

Stay attuned to your employees' needs and listen to them if they complain of discomfort. The fix may be as simple as a $39 foot rest ' a bargain compared to $1,000 of physical therapy for low back pain caused by unsupported feet or a chair that's too high. You may want to set up a feedback system so employees can inform you of developing problems early ' before the problems become permanent and while you still have a chance to correct them. Not only will this reduce the amount of big problems you experience, it will also improve workplace morale and your employees' perception of management.

Daniel Eisman is co-founder of HealthyComputing.com (www.healthycomputing.com), a free online resource for computer-related health and ergonomics information. The joint effort of physicians, ergonomists and physical therapists, HealthyComputing.com features tips on workstation setup and usage, medical encyclopedias, buyer's guides for ergonomic products and stretches and exercises. He welcomes any feedback and can be reached by e-mail at [email protected].

[ Return To The March 2002 Table Of Contents ]

Maximizing Human Capital Through Call Center Ergonomics

By Woody Dwyer, Humantech

During the past two decades, there has been a transition from the traditional call center environment to a fast-paced, technology-driven workplace. What once was a building full of switches, with operators sitting in rows of traditional desks answering phone calls, is now a high-tech, intensely computer-monitored environment. With the development of the Internet and computer technology, the work demands of today's customer service representative (CSR) have changed dramatically. Using advanced computer programs to navigate through a series of databases, CSRs now handle a much higher volume of calls, quickly and accurately accessing the information they need to provide answers for customers.

With the increase in work demands came a more pressing need for practicing good ergonomics in call centers. Many companies have recognized that ergonomics ' fitting the job to the worker ' can help reduce work-related injuries, improve employee morale and improve call center productivity. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the percentage of work-related illnesses such as carpal tunnel syndrome has increased from 18 percent in 1981, to 66 percent in 1999. This increase has resulted in significant call center losses in terms of increased recordable injuries/illnesses, with the average cost per injury case close to $8,000. Approximately one-third of workers' compensation dollars are spent on repetitive motion injuries, which are common to call centers. In addition to recordable injury losses, call centers have also experienced considerable absenteeism, lost productivity, employee turnover and loss of highly skilled employees.

Components Of A Call Center Ergonomics Process
Ergonomically designed workstations have been proven to reduce workers' compensation losses and enhance employee productivity. Workstations, however, are only one part of the ergonomics equation; a solid ergonomics process has been the key factor behind the success of many call centers. A successful ergonomics process is a combination of the following six components:

  1. Management and executive support,
  2. Ergonomically designed workstations,
  3. Awareness and skill-based training,
  4. Proactive postural assessment tool,
  5. Positive reinforcement of proper ergonomic postures from supervisors and peers, and
  6. Early reporting and intervention strategies for CSRs with discomfort and pain.

Management and executive support. As is true for every other business activity, you need management support to ensure that you have the resources required to both facilitate and sustain the ergonomics process and complete effective improvements. Demonstrating bottom-line value and presenting a planned approach are two ways you can obtain that support. Keep in mind that a planned approach must involve an efficient and cost-effective assessment to identify and prioritize the areas of highest ergonomic concern.

Ergonomically designed workstations. There are three components of an ergonomically sound workstation in a call center: an adjustable chair, an adjustable keyboard tray and an adjustable monitor. Together, these three components will accommodate approximately 90 percent of your call center population. An adjustable chair means four to six inches of seat height adjustment, and angle and tension adjustments for the lumbar support. Other desirable chair features include height- and depth-adjustable armrests and an adjustable seat pan. An adjustable keyboard tray provides four to six inches in height and angle adjustability. A monitor should be height adjustable via either plastic stackers or a monitor riser. For CSRs with special needs, adjustable footrests, wrist rests, task lighting, document holders and glare screens are also available.

Awareness and skill-based training. Education provides employees with a road map, the skills and the tools for solving ergonomic problems. Ultimately, proper ergonomics awareness training enables employees to make a meaningful contribution to the improvement process and avoid a number of pitfalls. Simply refurnishing your call center with high-end, 'ergonomically correct' equipment and furniture makes little impact if a solid CSR training effort does not support their proper use. For example, providing a CSR with a chair with adjustable arms, back, seat and height can create a potential problem if the CSR has not had the training to adjust it properly. If the user is not familiar with the basics of good working posture, you have just provided more opportunities to get it wrong. A successful awareness training program educates CSRs to recognize symptoms before they result in illness or injury and offers possible solutions to ergonomic challenges. The training should focus on the fundamentals of properly adjusting a workstation to allow a neutral posture while working. Some form of ongoing training should also be available, both to counsel staff as problems arise and to train new employees in appropriate ergonomic practices.

Proactive postural assessment tool. Ergonomic analysis is the key to ensuring that your company's investment focuses on the most important concerns and the most effective solutions. Without some measure of how serious problems are, it is easy to concentrate your efforts on those individuals who log the most complaints or those with the most political influence, overlooking what may be higher priority concerns. The risk is that a cumbersome, extensive analysis may only slow down the process, waste time and money and postpone needed improvements. Use an efficient evaluation method that provides rapid, accurate information on both specific concerns and general trends ' one that enables you to quickly and effectively understand and quantify the level of concern at each workstation and across the organization.

Positive reinforcement of proper ergonomic postures from supervisors and peers. Supervisor and peer behavior, comments and expectations greatly influence employee job performance. Regular positive performance feedback and coaching will help ensure that workers properly adjust their workstations, follow safe work practices and modify their behavior if necessary.

Early reporting and intervention strategies for CSRs with discomfort and pain. In addition to workstation assessments, the ergonomics process must include a strategy for early reporting of discomfort and pain in the workplace. If a CSR reports early signs of discomfort to his or her supervisor, there is a greater chance of making a positive workstation adjustment and decreasing the discomfort. On the other hand, if the CSR waits until he or she is experiencing pain or symptoms of a cumulative trauma disorder, the chance for a positive workstation adjustment is greatly reduced; the CSR has already progressed through the injury/illness development cycle. Management must create and maintain a positive work environment that is conducive to early reporting.

Money Talks
A small investment in an ergonomics process can yield large returns. One Fortune 500 company invested $250,000 (approximately $300 per employee) to develop an ergonomics process for multiple call centers and experienced a $1,800,000 reduction in direct medical costs the same year. The company also realized marked productivity improvements attributed to ergonomic improvement activities. Another large call center organization saved $1,200,000 in reduced medical costs and gained $800,000 in productivity due to a reduction in lost work days in 2001 compared to the previous year. One particular call center in the organization reduced absenteeism from 14 percent to 4.5 percent during the same time period as a direct result of ergonomic improvements.

By reducing health and safety losses and improving productivity, good ergonomic principles can contribute significantly to a call center organization's bottom line. They have been proven most effective when deployed through a comprehensive approach that addresses work environment factors, integrated with employee work practices and behaviors.

Woody Dwyer is managing consultant and ergonomics engineer for Humantech (www.humantech.com) and has served as lead engineer and project consultant for companies in the automotive, utilities, aluminum, paper, electronic, semiconductor and aerospace industries. He has completed over 500 ergonomic risk assessments in both manufacturing and office environments and has established and improved in-house ergonomics programs. Dwyer is a member of the American Society of Safety Engineers, Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, Association of Canadian Ergonomists, and Material Handling Industry of America.

[ Return To The March 2002 Table Of Contents ]

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