Working Posture for Craftsmen

Sore back? Achy wrists? How’s that neck? Do you have to twist and reach for tools? Do you have hemorrhoids? Sore eyes? Craftperson’s hunch? Your body is talking to you and you should be listening.

Many craftspeople have posture and body position problems. Ramazzini, the founder of occupational medicine and author of a groundbreaking book on diseases of workers published in 1713 writes rather cruelly (and the man was a great humanitarian in his time) about the effects of working posture and position in regard to cobblers and tailors: “It is a laughable sight to see those guilds of cobblers and tailors on their own special feast-days when they march in procession two by two through the city or escort to the tomb some member of their guild who has died; yes, it makes one laugh to see that troop of stooping, round-shouldered, limping men swaying from side to side; they look as though they had all been carefully selected for an exhibition of these infirmities” (283).

How you sit, stand, move, work can affect your body in the short and the long term. Learn from others: don’t reinvent the wheel with your own health and body. An old saying runs, “the truly smart person learns from their mistakes, the truly wise one from the mistakes of others” Do some research, talk to your doctor, an office furniture supplier, your insurance agent and your OSHA office about ergonomics and your working positions. There is a lot of information available for free from governments, and on safety and ergonomics sites on the internet.

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We all know craftspeople with back pain, workshops where the layout is nonsensical, that have awkward reaches for tools, bad lighting and innumerable other problems. How your shop is set up, the working procedures and workspace affect the rest of your life. Here’s what was wrong in a 1993 ergonomics study of a jewelry factory.

Many workers used awkward postures involving the arms, shoulders, wrists, neck and lower back. Even if someone did slightly different jobs in the shop during the day the postures and movements needed were similar, thus adding up to a sustained load on the body. Hand tool use was linked with a number of risk factors (for example: plier use and filing which forced the wrist out of its neutral position into a much more stressed one). Other problems included poor back posture, insufficient lighting or use of magnification, inappropriate tools and workstation design (easily remedied by more modern readily available commercial alternatives) and finally disorganized working areas (Grant et al. 91-93). Many of these same problems can be found in craft studios of all different kinds.

Take breaks and change your working position (i.e. height of chair and work surface) now and then. If you do a lot of sitting get up every 45 minutes to move around and change positions. Waller suggests that “Any activities that strain back or wrist muscles, or cause noise or vibration, should be done for only short periods of time (e.g. half-hour stretches) and alternated with another activity for a similar time span. This gives the body a chance to recover” (Waller 20). Factory work, particularly at stamping presses and similar mechanical, repetitive jobs can be especially dangerous for workers.

One of the themes that recurs in ergonomic analyses of crafts factories is that much damage could be avoided by having different working heights, and that people often perform the wrong task at an inappropriate height. Some tasks should be done at waist height and others elsewhere. Particularly if you are doing the same job over and over again all day, as occurs in a production situation, it can help dramatically to work at different heights during the day. This may mean different workstations, but also may mean easily adjustable chairs and tables. Get a headset telephone so you don’t hold your body in a strange position while you talk on the phone and continue to work. Studies have linked mostly standing or mostly sitting jobs with more lower-back pain problems than jobs where changes in posture occur (Garg and Moore 601).

Having tools easily accessible helps as well: in rotating bins, or blocks with tools sprouting from them that move about the work surface, shelves, compartments and tool boards. Easy reach and avoidance of twisting motions to reach tools are important considerations.

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So, it is worth chatting to knowledgeable people about your specific situation and working methods. Describe what you do, then you can do something about it. Ergonomic improvements can make a real difference to your life and long term health.

Chair Hints

You can develop back problems from slouching or using the wrong chair if you sit for long periods of time. When you sit your spinal disks have to bear approximately twice the pressure per square inch as when you stand.

  1. Use a chair that helps you maintain good posture easily, with your spine nearly vertical.
  2. The back rest should support the spine, particularly the lower spine. It should contact the back around 4 to 6 inches over the seat. Some people use a cushion there to improve support.
  3. Have an adjustable seat, both in angle and height from the floor: have an adjustable back rest (depth, height, tilt). The chair should be low enough that both feet can be on the floor with the knees at a comfortable angle.
  4. The knees should be slightly higher than the hips, a foot rest can sometimes be used to raise them, this helps the lower spine stay flat.
  5. Do not use too soft a seat cushion.
  6. Wool and rayon covers are preferred to vinyl or other synthetic ones, because they breathe.
  7. Using arm rests can help lower upper back strain.
  8. It should have a swivel seat and no castors (which can cause strain if one tries to stay still on the thing).
  9. Sit upright without either arching your back or pushing your neck and head out forwards.
  10. Keep your lower back flat against the supportive back of the chair.
  11. Shift positions frequently to change the pressures on the spine, get up, walk around (hence the use of a stand up soldering station in my workshop).
  12. Moving your neck, head and shoulders occasionally will help relieve stresses.
  13. Watch out that your head and neck are not bent over forwards when working, this strains them (Spandorfer et al 153) (Pinchot 126)

Cited:

  • Garg, Arun, and J. Steven Moore. “Epidemiology of Low-Back Pain in Industry.” Occupational Medicine: State of the Art Reviews 7.4 (October-December 1992): 593-608.
  • Grant, Katharyn, et al. “Case Studies: Biochemical Hazards in a Jewelry Manufacturing Facility.” Applied Occupational Environmental Hygiene 8.2 (February 1993): 90- 96.
  • Pinchot, Dan, (Ed.),The Skeleton, Fantastic Framework, Torstar books, New York, 1985
  • Ramazzini, Bernardino. Diseases of Workers. 1713. Trans.Wilmer Cave Wright. History of Medicine 22. New York: Hafner, 1964.
  • Spandorfer, Merle, et al. Making Art Safely. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1993.
  • Waller, Julian. Safe Practices in the Arts & Crafts: A Studio Guide. 2nd ed. New York: College Art Association of America, 1985
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