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Innovative Management Information
April 2001


Make Your Contact Center Ergonomics Friendly -- Or Someone Else Will


Last June, I gained some very valuable insight from TMC president Rich Tehrani. I've read Rich's columns in this magazine for years, often when I would come across an issue while making a call center visit. On that particular day last June, I skimmed through the magazine and found Rich's column entitled, "Just What the Dentist Ordered." I like Rich's columns; but on that day, it was my fear of dentists that captured my interest -- how could those drill-wielding maniacs be related to the contact center?

I learned two things that day. The first is that Rich is not a big fan of preventive dental work and paid a painful price for it. The second thing I learned, which has remained with me for nearly a year, is that a typical work-related musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) can cost a contact center approximately $35,000 per employee to remedy. I didn't read the rest of that column at that time, distraught by both the business about Rich's teeth and that staggering 35K number.

Before I began to write this article, I did a quick search for the word "dentist" on TMCnet.com and read "Just What the Dentist Ordered" in its entirety to find that it leads to a great article written that month by Steven D. Rudnik (Magnitude Information Systems, Inc.) entitled, "Improve Your Call Center With An Ergonomics Makeover."

The fact is, most of us (except me) would rather be next to Rich at the dentist before reading about ergonomics, but if you haven't yet implemented a safe and comfortable work environment for your contact center agents, read on. (It won't hurt a bit!)

What's An Ergonomist Anyway?
The first time I heard of a high-performance chair I almost fell off my own, rather rigid, chair. High-performance chairs cater to the busy executive who wants every part of his or her seat to be...well, high-performance. This is truly the ultimate in ergonomics. As a term, ergonomics sounds a bit like an illness many people live in fear of contracting. Usually, not until someone experiences an injury resulting from a mundane task such as typing does the topic of ergonomics come up and the safety of the workplace get addressed.

In a literal definition, the word ergonomics was derived from the Greek ergon, meaning work; and nomos, meaning laws. This serves as a good present-day definition: work law. Alhough we often use the term ergonomics to describe physical items (such as the high-performance chair), ergonomics is actually a science. I find it most often referred to as the science of fitting work environments to people. Ergonomics, as it relates to the contact center industry, considers our physical limitations in relation to our workspace.

Facing high costs incurred from work-related injuries, employers are turning to ergonomists for advice in designing work areas that foster comfort and overall well-being. The ergonomist has finally received long overdue recognition and is as valuable a consultant as the person designing your network.

Physical And Mental Ergonomics
In a perfect world, everyone would design their contact centers to foster comfort and overall well-being -- but more often than not, contact centers are designed simply to limit or eliminate the possibility of common injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome. That's just good business, and a good enough reason as any to do the right thing.

The contact center's primary focus is physical ergonomics -- working postures, repetitive movements and the like. Other areas of ergonomics that are pertinent to the contact center include perception, motor response and memory (all of which can lead to losses in an employee's productivity resulting from stress and sheer overload). Mental ergonomics should be considered, for example, when looking at technology that enables agents to do 50 tasks in 15 minutes. While a complete technology offering must be part of the call center if it is to be considered a full-service contact center, failing to consider human factors when implementing technology and delegating responsibilities to agents is not recommended.

Also related to mental ergonomics is lighting. A mental shift can result from something as simple as a computer monitor with no anti-glare screen. Hold a small flashlight to one of your eyes for a full 60 seconds and see if you don't experience a mental shift -- or even a headache! This example is more sudden and extreme than what an agent would experience, but a decent comparison to the slow irritation caused by that funky bright spot on the side of a computer monitor that an agent can stare at (peripherally) for hours.

In terms of physical ergonomics, look around your own office for a moment. The standard set-up in the most lightly furnished office has a desk in front, a credenza behind and a bookcase to the left or right. This set-up works well for our perception; it's comfortable and symmetrical. After working on the computer or speaking on the phone without a break for an hour, you can certainly imagine wanting to stretch your back.

Now the next bit of this scenario is the most important part to visualize, or this exercise won't have the proper wake-you-up effect.

You are in the same office, but imagine now losing 50 percent of your desk surface and the walls closing in on you -- leaving just about enough space to hold your arms at your waist without elbowing someone else. Pretty uncomfortable after a couple of hours -- or the average six and one-half hours of actual "sit-down" time most customer service reps endure each day.

Ergonomics And The Government
It's not exactly the split between Church and State, but in this era of counting presidential votes with our fingers and toes, a moment to demonstrate respect for governmental intervention in ergonomics is appropriate.

Though governmental regulations enacted to gently nudge companies into providing their employees with improved comfort were just recently overturned by the current presidential administration and Congress, the likelihood of government regulations remains high.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) of the U.S. Department of Labor has stated that musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) account for the majority of lost workdays. MSDs are injuries and disorders of the muscles, nerves, tendons, ligaments, joints, cartilage and spinal disc. Think lower back pain and neck pain on the average, quickly followed by the popular rotator cuff syndrome and carpal tunnel syndrome, a condition caused by repetitive motions such as typing. This seems a little more serious when we look at OSHA's estimate of 1,713,242 annual cases of MSD in the U.S. alone.

If you try to consider every possible human factor when designing a new contact center or outfitting your existing center to meet the new ergonomic standards, you will quickly find yourself between a rock and a hard place. The way to tackle it is to seek compliance by looking at the potential causes of injuries in your contact center, and working your way from there.

The Price Of Compliance
If you're designing a new contact center, you can now find many low-cost alternatives in the areas of comfortable and ergonomically sound workstations and
chairs, as well as video and/or display terminals. Among the benefits of an ergonomic-friendly design in a new contact center is safe employees, which has been known to actually increase agent productivity.

The new contact center has it easy. During the process of building, it doesn't take a great deal of time to consider the following factors in ergonomic design:

  • Display monitors/screens. Ensure that monitors are protected with anti-glare filters.
  • Lighting. Ensure that lighting is adequate and doesn't cause further glare or lend itself to reflections on computers and other equipment. Agents should be able to comfortably see everything within their work areas.
  • Workstations. Ensure that your workstations aren't built for a 6-foot-tall person with a 1-foot wingspan. Workstations should further take into account that people, like snowflakes, differ in shapes and sizes.
  • Peripheral equipment. Consider workstations that have adjustable keyboard drawers. If the desktop PC is a standing tower under the agent's workstation and results in a monitor the agent must look down at, consider an adjustable monitor arm. If agents perform data entry for extended periods of time, a document arm is also recommended.
  • Chairs. They need not necessarily be the Rolls Royces of chairs, but do ensure they are adjustable and comfortable.
  • Sound. Furniture vendors often advise on workstations that absorb and/or deflect sound. It's hard for agents to do their jobs when all they can hear is the conversation in the next cubicle.

Now for the issue of existing contact centers. When incorporating comfort into an existing environment, think small and simple measures. Ripping every workstation from the floor is probably not necessary. Working around what you have may prove to be easier than it sounds. Adding wrist, foot and back rests, for example, will provide cost-effective and well-received comfort to your agents. If the workstations do not have wrist rests that adjust to various heights, your chairs should adjust so that the wrists (and forearms) are properly elevated in relation to the keyboard.

If you believe your existing contact center is non-compliant, you should quickly opt to follow OSHA's "Quick Fix" recommendations. OSHA states that "often the problems that result in musculoskeletal disorders can be fixed easily and quickly and at very little expense." OSHA proposes that a job-based ergonomics program, instead of a facility-wide program, be implemented. The benefit of the Quick Fix approach is that if you correct one problem (or "job") that has caused, or has the potential to cause, an injury, there is no need for additional action and related expense.

Quick Fix requirements, according to OSHA, are as follows:

  • Promptly provide MSD management to employees with covered MSDs.
  • Observe, consult with and seek recommendations from employees in the job to identify risk factors and recommendations for eliminating the MSD hazard.
  • Put controls in place within 90 days and review them in 30 days to verify that they are working.
  • Keep a record of Quick Fix controls.
  • Provide the required hazard information within 90 days to any employee in the job.
  • Institute a full ergonomics program if Quick Fix does not work or another MSD occurs in that job within 36 months.

I cannot stress enough the value of speaking with your agents consistently. This communication will enable you to discover what is making them most uncomfortable, and will also give you the opportunity to remind them to practice good posture as well. It's good for their vocal tone as well as their safety.

The expense of developing a proper ergonomic environment from scratch or outfitting your existing environment with ergonomic accessories is minimal when compared to the expenses associated with a possible injury. Look out on your contact center floor and visualize $35,000 for every seat you can see. If that doesn't work, think of the painful wisdom teeth Rich might have avoided if he had heeded the advice of prevention. Good luck to all.

Natalie Perez is president of Concentric Enterprises, Inc., a contact center technology and operations consulting firm. For an electronic copy of the OSHA Final Ergonomics Program Standard (29 CFR 1910.900), contact the author at [email protected] or contact OSHA's Ergonomics Team at 202-693-2116. You may also visit the OSHA home page at www.osha.gov for additional information.

[ Return To The April 2001 Table Of Contents ]

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