OFFICE HEALTH Reducing hidden health risks in the office

Photo by Pat ChristmanClaire Patterson, an Occupational Health nurse at Mankato Clinic, helps businesses identify and correct workplace health risks.

Sitting in a desk chair, moving only your fingers along the keyboard — it doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of risk there for injury in the work place.

But Claire Patterson, an Occupational Health nurse at Mankato Clinic, knows better. From eye strain to carpal tunnel, weight gain, or even back and neck injuries, there are all kinds of hidden health risks associated with office jobs.

Employers invest a lot of money into health plans for their workers, and prevention can mean big savings down the line for all involved if health risks are corrected early. That’s why businesses pay to have Patterson and other area occupational health workers come assess employees’ working conditions and suggest changes.

“I do things like check out how your work station is set up, your office setting, and I listen to concerns employees are having about aches and pains, and I make suggestions there,” Patterson said. “So, for example, if three or four people are having back pain, I’ll come in and assess, watch how they’re working, and I’ll probably visit with some of those staff members and rearrange their work station and suggest changes on how things are done.”

Patterson worked with the three employees of Great River Insurance on these kinds of issues. Kristin Henning, chief human resources officer with Farmward Cooperative, said they brought Patterson in after an employee was having issues with her work setup.

“We’ve always had the philosophy that wellness and safety go beyond the typical operational positions that we have,” Henning said.

In addition to wanting employees to feel comfortable and safe at work, the small investment of hiring an occupational health official for a couple of hours outweighs the much larger costs that could result in long-term injury, Henning said. (Mankato Clinic charges an undisclosed hourly rate that varies based on services and other factors.)

“When you think of the risk, just say we hadn’t done anything (for the employee). If she would have experienced anything, like carpal tunnel or back strain, worker’s compensation would have been paying on that, and the company ends up paying higher premiums, and there’s lost work time and productivity,” Henning said. “The cost is really so minor.”

Also, Henning said, Patterson suggested low-cost ways to fix problems. Solutions could be as simple as putting reams of paper under a monitor to raise it up so a person’s neck isn’t bent forward, or raising the height of a desk chair, or moving a printer closer if a person is constantly twisting their body to reach for printouts.

“It takes less than an hour to evaluate an employee,” Henning said. “For a company with a significant amount of employees, yes there’s an investment, but it’s really minor in the scheme of things.”

In addition to proper work station ergonomics, Patterson said typically office employees aren’t moving around enough.

“It’s not any fault of their own; they might get busy,” she said. “But I’m a firm believer that you need to move once an hour.”

Patterson said drinking a lot of water is not only good for your health on its own, but it’s a good trick to get people to walk more frequently because you have to use the restroom more.

Walking around also gives the eyes a rest from staring at a computer screen, which can cause eye strain.

“(We should) be mindful of all the different things in the environment,” she said.

Patterson also shows employees stretching and moving exercises to help with wrist, back and other body aches.

Various other services are available to companies, including on-site flu shots, physical therapy and more.

“We’re in an era where you don’t see nurses in companies anymore,” Patterson said. “I wish we could offer more.”

Claire Patterson

Occupational Medicine, Mankato Clinic


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