How Healthy is Your Workplace?

A push for ergonomic considerations has firms like EWI Works International Inc. redefining the workplace.

Linda Miller founded EWI Works to help bring ergonomic considerations into the modern workplace.

Twenty years ago, Linda Miller founded EWI Works as a consulting firm specializing in ergonomics, the study of work environments and how they impact productivity and employee well-being. The opportunity grew out of Miller’s earlier career as an occupational therapist, where she helped individual clients recover from workplace injuries. Miller went on to earn a master’s in environmental design in order to help companies prevent workplace injuries, and she founded EWI as the delivery vehicle. This organic growth in her career—from reactive to proactive intervention—reflects shifting attitudes in the business world, and the company has prospered.

Today, EWI fields a team of consultants, all of whom have advanced degrees in core ergonomic disciplines, in addition to credentialling as Canadian Certified Professional Ergonomists. Each consultant also has a specialty that contributes to the firm’s portfolio of services, be it workplace assessments, design reviews, or customized ergonomic training and education. From offices in Edmonton and Calgary, EWI consultants engage in projects in Western Canada and the United States. In its early days, the firm served clients primarily in heavy industry and manufacturing, but today, EWI is just as likely to consult in schools and offices.

One of the notable trends that EWI has responded to is the greening of the indoor environment. “According to recent studies, people spend 90 percent of their time indoors, so the built environment has a fairly significant impact on their health,” Miller says.

Miller credits the US Green Building Council and its LEED certification system with raising the standard of green building design. “The piece that we look at is occupant health—designing buildings that actually support the occupants’ well-being,” she says. “People do not necessarily connect LEED with ergonomics, but we believe that they are definitely tied together.”

Related examples can be seen in air quality, temperature, and natural-daylight exposure. The latter of these is especially important in northern locations, where people go to work and come home in the dark. However, too much light makes it difficult to use computer screens.

EWI’s commitment is impressive. The company has submitted a paper to the International Ergonomics Association on the importance of including ergonomics in the life cycle of a building, based on its occupant surveys of LEED buildings. The paper will be presented at the association’s upcoming conference in Brazil. It is one of the signs of progress that Miller sees; today, there is a whole conference track dedicated to ergonomics and the environment, whereas there would have been only one or two papers a few years ago.

The publicity surrounding sick building syndrome, repetitive stress injuries, and industrial safety has highlighted the challenges to workplace health. “While the Canadian Standards Association has issued strong guidelines to help employers understand what the issues are around lighting, acoustics, air quality, and workstation setups, there is little actual regulation of these matters,” Miller says. “Companies hire ergonomics consultants because they want to control injury cost and lost time associated with illness; they see a healthy workplace as being critical to that. We work primarily with health and safety professionals, HR planners, and facilities managers.”

The worst mistake Miller encounters is a “one size fits all” mentality. Employees come in all sizes, from barely five feet tall to the height of a basketball player. For a while, there was a general movement toward supplying workstation furniture that could be adjusted accordingly. But because of the economy, buildings and workplaces now tend to be smaller and less customizable.

However, despite such a problem, there is a growing recognition of the importance of daylighting, natural views, and air quality. Who would have expected that 20 years ago?