Ergonomics in the home

Employers have made great strides in helping workplaces become more ergonomically friendly for workers. Carpel tunnel syndrome, leg cramps and other problems associated with sitting for too long or performing repetitive movements have educated companies on ways they can design their work environments to keep employees safe and injury-free.

With homes, however, it’s easy to get caught up in aesthetics while forgoing decisions that could ultimately pay off by helping us avoid aching backs and necks. Where we place dishes, the location of a wall-mounted television or the selection of a certain type of counter and cabinet combination can make all the difference. Consider the following nine tips to help keep your home environment ergonomically friendly:

1) Working with cabinets

Most of us know that putting heavy pots and pans up high inside tall cabinets, forcing you to reach above your shoulders is a no-no. However, Stacy Fisher, assistant professor at Touro University’s School of Physical Therapy, says there are plenty of drawers and slide-out features available today for closets and cabinets that help homeowners avoid injury by not forcing them to reach deep into these storage places at awkward angles. Closets with pull-down racks and kitchen cabinets with pull-out shelves are examples.

“I find some of the most challenging areas in homes are bathrooms and closets,” Fisher said. “I don’t like how expensive some of these options are, but they do work.”

If you can’t afford to customize a closet or cabinet with pull-outs, Fisher recommends keeping everyday-use dishes, pots and pans in areas where there’s minimal bending and straining to get to them.

The key is to avoid having to pick up something heavy from an area located above the shoulders. If that’s the case, use a step stool, she added. Heavy crystal or fancy dishes used only once or twice a year are the exception. Store them high, but make sure you use a stool to get to them when they’re needed.

“You’ll have better stability (when the item is at shoulder level or below),” Fisher explained.

The same rules also apply for microwaves in kitchens. Fisher says ideally she’d like to see them on the counter, but homeowners aren’t ready to give up counter space. Microwaves are usually above the stove, slightly higher than the shoulders for shorter people.

2) Toilets high and low

Fisher also says most standard-sized toilet seats are far too low, making it hard as we age to get up and down from the seat. She recommends handicap-accessible toilets that are about 3 inches taller than standard ones. With that, she adds, “I would say they even need to be taller.”

3) Showering right

Spring-loaded shower seats that fold up against the wall are great for people who have trouble standing for long periods of time. Fisher also encourages people to use soap trays that can be easily moved to places where you don’t need to reach awkwardly or high above your head.

If you’re designing your bathroom for a new build or a remodel, consider having the shower head come down from the ceiling. This prevents taller and shorter users from needing to constantly adjust the head.

“Having that shower head in the ceiling, that’s a great natural ergonomic position,” Fisher noted.

4) Chairs, couches

Often when we select a couch or chairs, our mind can become set on aesthetics so we forget comfort. Bar stools are a prime example. If you want your family and guests to stay comfortable, says Austrie Messer, a junior designer at Lisa Escobar Design in Las Vegas, make sure the bar stools in your home have back support.

“You can find some that are very functional and good-looking,” Messer added. “You come home and it’s important that your house is comfortable, too.”

The same goes for living and family room sofas, sectionals and love seats. Sometimes, homeowners will opt for something that’s too soft, and it’s hard to get in and out of the seat.

“I think couches and chairs are a lot like mattress testing. It’s definitely a personal choice,” Messer said.

5) Furniture arrangement

Sometimes, the way furniture is arranged in a home can create hazards for the homeowner.

Scott Harris, COO and co-founder of Building Construction Group, based in Los Angeles, likes open and inviting spaces that are easy to navigate and free of clutter.

“Your furniture arrangement should greet you and clear a way for you to come home and relax,” he said.

6) Beds

Perhaps no other piece of furniture affects your mood for the day. We’ve all slept on mattresses that are either too hard or too soft and that left us with aches and pains. Take your time, do the research and pick the right one, Messer says.

“It’s an investment. You spend a lot of hours on your mattress. Make sure it’s good for your back and your body,” she added.

Bed height may invite ergonomic concerns, too. Some beds are simply set too high. Fisher has had clients whose bed tops were as high as the middle of their buttocks. Some need to use step stools to get into bed at night.

“It’s very unsafe. … It can especially be a challenge as you’re getting out of bed,” she noted.

7) Counter height

Both Fisher and Messer agree that standard-height counters in both kitchens and bathrooms, about 32 inches, force many people to slouch and put unneeded stress on the upper back. Messer prefers 36-inch-high counters and says higher counters in general are becoming a growing request these days.

8) Functional floors

For people who spend a lot of time in the kitchen, impact-absorbent flooring is helpful. If that’s not in the budget, padded mats could also be used in the kitchen and bathroom. Many also bring added slip resistance to prevent accidents.

9) 15-degree rule

Whether you’re in your home office working on the computer or watching television in your great room, pay attention to your neck. In these situations, you should be glancing up at about a 15-degree angle, no more, to avoid neck pain and soreness, Fisher noted.

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