Many managers may associate ergonomic improvements with expensive chairs or elaborate lift tables. In a poor economy many budgets for these types of “non-essentials” may be slashed or greatly reduced. Fortunately, with a little creativity and imagination, there are still inexpensive ways to bring good ergonomics into the workplace.

If you look at an office worker’s desk, you are likely to see a combination of glare screens, foot rests, lumbar supports and wrist rests. Purchasing the top-of-the-line types of these items can cost hundreds of dollars. If you throw in an ergonomic chair, these costs can double or triple.

Seating for one

One of the most important pieces of equipment to many workers is their chair. Typically, chairs are not one-size-fits-all and can be a source of poor ergonomics. For example, heavy-set employees may have difficulty sitting in normal size chairs with armrests. To make a chair more comfortable for a larger employee, remove the arm rests or adjust them up and down. If a very large employee is forced to sit in a chair with armrests, the back area of the chair may need additional padding for back support.

Conversely, to make a large chair more comfortable for a small employee, the seat pan can be made shorter by placing padding (such as a pillow) behind the back. Adjustable armrests can be lowered or raised, along with the height of the chair, to allow the smaller employee to sit comfortably in the assigned chair. Many armrests also adjust in and out so they can be brought in closer to the body. If this is not an option on a chair, thick pieces of foam (covered if necessary) can be placed between the employee and the armrest. If a chair is too high even after adjustments are made, a footrest can always be used so that the employee’s legs do not dangle.

Lumbar supports are available from many sources and usually cost anywhere from $15 - $40. This is another item often improvised by the employee. In some cases, the employee may just not understand the operation of the chair and once it is adjusted properly, an additional lumbar support may not even be needed. For employees whose chairs lack good lumbar support, and who desire the homemade touch, rolled towels can serve the purpose. Duct tape or another method is usually needed to secure the roll. Small pillows properly placed are another option.

Agony of the feet

Footrests are one of the office items most frequently improvised by workers. Shorter workers may require a footrest so that their feet have a solid base and do not hang unsupported, while some taller employees might like a footrest to raise their feet and straighten out their legs throughout the day. Pregnant women also often desire to use a footrest to alleviate swollen ankles.

While ergonomic catalogs offer footrests that tilt, have balls or rollers and are height adjustable, most “homemade” fixes can adequately do the basic job of raising your feet. Sturdy boxes of all heights make good footrests as long as they don’t slip out from under the feet. Shoeboxes filled with heavy items may work fine. A shoebox can also be made to tilt toward the user. A heavy duty cardboard roll, such as a mailing tube, can be cut to size and taped under the shoe box so that the box angles towards the user in a comfortable manner. Though not pretty, the self-made footrest is typically kept out of view.

All in the wrist

Wrist rests are not usually very expensive items to begin with, but some companies may still not approve their purchase. If you walk through office buildings, you may see dishtowels rolled up and used in this capacity. This is not a bad solution, but it is important to remind employees that they should not type with their hands laying on these rests but instead should use them when they have pauses in their typing.

One of the most common problems with computer work is having the mouse up on a different level or too far away from the keyboard. This is often because the keyboard tray, if one is in place, cannot also accommodate a mouse. The mouse should be kept close to the right side of the keyboard (for a right-hander) so that hands and arms do not have to reach too far away from the body.

A cheap and easy way to improve this is to better utilize the area of the numeric pad of the keyboard. Since most office personnel rarely use the numeric pad, it may be possible to replace the keyboard with one that does not have the keypad, but this is costly if your company does not already have these in-house. Another alternative, for those who are really willing to think outside the box, is to use your old “page-a-day” calendar. Take all the pages off the calendar and you will basically be left with a five-inch by six-inch piece of plastic with one-inch legs. If you flip it over, it will fit nicely on top of, and over, the numeric pad of most standard keyboards and serve very nicely as a mousepad.

Less than perfect-looking

If your company will tolerate less than perfect-looking ergonomic fixes, keeping office workers comfortable doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. With a little imagination and common home and office supplies, anyone can be ergonomically correct.

SIDEBAR: Homemade ergo fixes

There are usually inexpensive homemade alternatives to many of the smaller, somewhat optional ergonomic items often found in workspaces. Many employees who are not working comfortably will tend to attempt to make their own fixes.

For example, employees may tape bubble wrap along the edge of a desk so that a square edge doesn’t hurt to lean on while typing. In manufacturing environments, bubble wrap or other insulating-type plastic is often used by employees to pad around fixtures and other awkwardly placed parts of machinery controls or supports that may be the cause of many a bruised leg. Padding that is more aesthetically pleasing is sold specifically for this purpose, but for frugal companies the bubble wrap alternative may be just fine for both employees and management.

One of the most common fixes seen in the office environment is the telephone book. In an effort to keep the top of the computer monitor at approximately eye level, many workers use a telephone book or two to raise the monitor to the proper height. Of course, any book can be used, and in some instances thinner books may give the user more options and allow the appropriate height to be achieved more readily.

Spotting these “homemade fixes” can sometimes be a great help in identifying where there are possible hazardous conditions or practices that require further investigation and, perhaps, more permanent solutions.