When I was an undergraduate in the mid-to-late 1990s, I worked for one of the many Canadian Federal departments where I wrote/edited/translated/coded for their internal (aka intranet) newsletter. While I was there on a work term, ergonomics was all the rage; I was sent to cover and write about a visit from an ergonomics specialist who had been brought in to evaluate the working conditions of the employees. With the materials she provided to me, I ended up doing a series of short pieces called “Ergo-Tips” with advice on the proper positioning of the desk, chair, screen, light, etc, in an office space.
This was also the era of carpel tunnel syndrome and other repetitive motion injuries; companies’ costs were going up as a result, because of time off work and rehabilitation time. I’m sure there were also lawsuits. Eye strain, back and neck pains, repertory problems – these were all taken seriously by many companies (I worked for a number of tech firms during my work term) who were all in favor of preventing injury to their workers, even though we worked in the relative safety of an office cubicle. Air filters, new chairs, better keyboards, different lighting, health club memberships – many of these companies decided that an ounce of prevention was worth a pound of cure.
And then, it all just stopped.
Or maybe I decided to change industries and move into higher education. Even since graduate school, I have been using discarded office furniture fitted with broken chairs in the worst parts of buildings. When I did my PhD, I was considered one of the lucky ones because I didn’t end up with my office in old, run-down, rotting, squirrel-infested trailers that had been meant for a short period of time and had instead had been turned into the “permanent” home for graduate student offices (they have since been torn down). But my office was still broken into because of the sheer number of keys out there (it was a massive shared space) and all of my books were stolen two days before one of my comps.
My current workspace is in a house that has been slated for demolition and thus no one bothers with any sort of real upkeep. When it rains, it smells like something is rotting. My office furniture was made before computers were ever even a consideration. I had to “relocate” my office chair from another room so that I could adjust the height and keep the constant headaches and shoulder and back pain at bay. Now, they’ve designated the backyard of the house where my office is as a smoking area, eliminating one of the few advantages I had: the ability to open a window and let in some fresh air. And while I appreciate that I have access to a health club, it maddens me to no end that the classes offered don’t match the time with when academic classes start and end (Yoga at noon – too bad all academic classes end at 12:30).
Yes, I know, I am lucky I even have an office. More importantly, for me, is that I even have health insurance to be able to more affordably treat the many (indeed relatively minor) ailments that I have because of my work conditions. But as studies are showing that sitting all day is really bad for your health, that the environment in which we work can and does kill us, even in a “safe” office, I wonder when we’re going to re-discover ergonomics, and remember that “instructor work conditions are student learning conditions”? This shouldn’t be a contest about who has it worse, it should be an opportunity to rediscover ways in which we can make conditions better for all of us.