Public health

Evidence for ergonomic interventions is weak and out of date: Cochrane

A Cochrane review has found no compelling new evidence to suggest that ergonomic interventions are effective in preventing musculoskeletal disorders in office workers.

While an ‘ergonomic’ computer mouse and arm support might help prevent neck and upper limb problems, there is a lack of strong evidence to support ergonomic-based recommendations to prevent upper limb and neck disorders in the workplace,  according to Professor Malcolm Sim, an occupational physician and epidemiologist from Monash University, and his co-authors

In an update to a 2012 Cochrane systematic review, the team of Australian and Malaysian researchers reviewed 15 randomised controlled trials looking at the effects of ergonomic interventions to prevent musculoskeletal problems in office workers.

While some interventions are likely to reduce the risk of developing such disorders, the evidence is unclear, the reviewers conclude.

The Cochrane review included trial involving 2165 office workers evaluating the effect of physical interventions such as an ‘alternative’ mouse that promotes neutral posture and organisational interventions such as supplemental breaks from work.

The review found:

  • Moderate quality evidence that an arm support with an alternative computer mouse reduces the incidence of neck or shoulder, but not right upper limb musculoskeletal disorders;
  • Low-quality evidence that supplementary breaks reduce discomfort in upper limbs;
  • Workstation adjustment and sit‐stand desks do not have an effect on upper limb pain compared to no intervention;
  • No evidence that ergonomics training reduces upper limb pain or discomfort.

The authors also note the majority of studies of ergonomic interventions are at least a decade old and may be no longer relevant given that current office equipment is considerably different from that used 10 to 20 years ago.

The studies were done when most office staff spent their working day stationary, sat a workstation with a desktop or laptop computer, whereas modern work environments may be more mobile, with staff using sit‐stand workstations and tablets and smart phones, according to Professor Sim and colleagues.

The review comes as the entire field of ergonomics has been called into question by prominent back pain expert Professor Chris Maher, Director of the Institute for Musculoskeletal Health at the University of Sydney.

In October, Professor Maher told Fairfax Media that ergonomics “does not have a firm basis in science” and said that interventions do not prevent musculoskeletal pain and could even be make musculoskeltal problems worse.

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