expert interviews Mar 03, 2022

Today’s post is an interview with Nicole Stewart. Nicole is a consultant who assists clients in creating a healthier office or home workspace by providing cost-effective Ergonomics solutions. Her remote and onsite services include webinars, chair assessments, and workspace evaluations. She has an MS in Occupational Therapy from Tufts University and an Advanced Office Ergonomics Assessment Certification. Nicole is also a member of the Accelerate program.

I had the opportunity to chat with Nicole about her background in Occupational Therapy and how she combines it with Ergonomics to provide an elite level of service. We talk about future trends of Ergonomics, including AI and Wellness. Nicole shared a lot of valuable insights that you can incorporate if you're considering getting into ergonomics. 

Here’s a bit of what Nicole and I discussed:

Can you share a little bit more about yourself?

Nicole: I’m an Occupational Therapist. I received my master's degree from Tufts University. My experience has been working in acute care hospitals. I’ve worked primarily with orthopedic patients and providing rehab services for the adult and geriatric populations having joint replacements, hand injuries, and spine surgeries.

How did you get your start in ergonomics and what types of assessments did you find that started this career for you?

Nicole: I was introduced to ergonomics through a fieldwork placement during graduate school. I worked in an occupational health clinic providing rehab services to injured workers. These injuries were pretty catastrophic, mostly upper or lower amputations due to poor safety in the workplace. During my fieldwork experience, what stood out most for me was that many of these work-related injuries could’ve been prevented with ergonomic controls. From there, I began educating myself further in this field. Then I began performing ergonomic evaluations in the hospital that I worked at, and then lab and office settings within the hospital itself. 

I had the opportunity to be part of an ergonomic committee for a pharmaceutical company that was contracted through my hospital. It was very interesting to dive deep into the risk factors associated with pipetting, microscope work, and biosafety cabinets, and also to work with a committee to develop a process to address these ergonomic concerns in that company.  There are a lot of hand repetitive motions in pipetting, and that was the primary complaint in the laboratories. Providing them with better tools and instruction on hand posture was really important to help them prevent these injuries. So that's what got me into the ergonomics world.

What attracted you about the ergonomics industry? 

Nicole: I really wanted to help prevent these injuries. In my opinion, working on a computer shouldn’t cause anyone pain or discomfort. I found that most of my evaluations or the client requests were reactive; they were in response to employee injuries or discomfort. But it seemed that the majority of employers weren't interested in the preventative approach to ergonomics, and I wanted to change this mindset. At this point, I knew I wanted to start my own consulting business with a focus on the prevention of work-related injuries, focusing on the office and home workspace. 

Can you share any memorable ergonomic assessments and what you did to limit the ergonomic risk?

Nicole: I have many memorable assessments, but one that stood out for me was a referral that I received for a secretary working in a community health clinic. Her primary issue was knee pain. When it comes to workstation assessments, I usually receive complaints of discomfort in the wrist, shoulder, neck, or back, but not typically associated with a person's knee joints.

When I arrived at the clinic, I immediately was able to find the root cause of the discomfort. She had a computer desk with a printer shelf located under her desktop, so it didn’t allow enough space for her legs. Therefore, her knees were pressed up against the edge of the shelf. In the ergonomic world, we call this contact stress, and it does cause pain. In addition, the keyboard tray was at a fixed height, which forced her to type with her wrist bends. However, she did have an adjustable chair that fit her very well.  

My primary recommendation was to obtain a new desk to address her knee pain and wrist posture. Cost was a factor in this situation, so I provided two different options and price points: The first one was to replace her current desk with a height-adjustable desk. The second option was to repurpose a monitor keyboard wall mount system that wasn't currently being used in the clinic. 

The employee really liked the idea of being able to alternate her sit-stand position with a wall mount system, and of course, the employer was in agreement. So education was very important as the employee required training in the correct height adjustments in sitting and standing positions. Ultimately, both parties were pleased with the outcome, and it really made a difference.

Do you have any types of services that you’ve provided to employers that some people might consider surprising, but it actually follows into your customer journey and get them ready for ergonomic services down the line?

Nicole: By working as an OT, I’ve gained knowledge of various conditions, which allow me to make necessary adjustments or modifications to their workstations and prevent further injury. For example, the age of retirement seems to be increasing in the US, and we need to keep the workers healthy. I offer webinars to my clients, discussing workstation setup with a focus on arthritis. This condition affects many people as we age. It can limit hand function when using the keyboard, mouse, or even writing. So providing recommendations for tools to assist these older workers to stay employed and prevent further joint damage is extremely important. 

Or it could be that an employee has had a series of spine surgeries that made them unable to sit for a long period of time, but they do want to keep working. Making simple adjustments in their workstation and accommodation may allow them to continue working and being comfortable. That's an asset to the employer too—having not to retrain new employees and to retain their current employees. 

How has the industry shifted during your career thus far?

Nicole: I think the industry has shifted with the use of technology. For ergonomic assessments and education, it enables us to reach workers in various workspaces, particularly now that most workers are working from home. Many are working from their laptop and finding themselves in awkward positions. We can now reach them in their homes through webinars and evaluations. Even chair fittings are now done virtually. However, it’s a case-by-case situation. Not every evaluation can be done online.

We need to be aware of the platform we’re using as we need to provide optimal services to our clients.

Technology plays a central role in our services. I'm seeing different types of wearable technologies for lifting in a factory. There are apps being developed to ensure accuracy and measurements for some job tasks being performed. However, I do believe that they need to be used in conjunction with a consultant. Some factors aren’t being taken into consideration with this technology, such as environmental factors like lighting in an office or glare on the computer. So all those factors need to be taken into consideration.

What would you recommend to new grads or to other healthcare professionals looking to get into the ergonomics profession? 

Nicole: As an occupational therapist, we’re highly skilled at risk identification, problem solving, biomechanics, and also developing that close-knit relationship with our clients; these all translate well into ergonomic consulting. But typically, most OT schools only teach a basic understanding of ergonomics, so it's necessary to educate yourself through programs like Darcie’s Ergonomic Blueprint and get involved in some aspect of ergonomic safety in your own workplace like I did in my own hospital. I participated in health fairs, educated staff on correct patient handling techniques, taught some CNAs (Certified Nursing Assistants) how to transfer patients safely, and performed ergonomic evaluations throughout the hospital. 

But even with all the education and experience, I think other OTs would agree that we are challenged by the aspect of marketing ourselves. It can really hold you back from starting a business. So working with Darcie and members of the Accelerate group sort of removed that barrier by providing strategies and a process to help me move forward in my business. It also helps to get support from like-minded individuals to help us reach our business goals.

Working with the members of the Accelerate group was really key in moving forward in my business

Where do you think the ergonomics industry is trending?

Nicole: I'm seeing that employers are more invested in the health of their workers now—addressing work-related stress, disconnecting from the laptop at home, decreasing workloads, offering more wellness services, and flexible work hours. However, the birth of hybrid work created some challenges.

For instance, some companies have not invested in adjustable equipment. Or if they have, it’s that lack of education on customizing the workstation itself. In addition, the hybrid workspace seems to have environmental issues, including lighting from the floor to ceiling windows, visual and auditory distractions, and lack of space for personal items. Ergonomic Consultants could play a pivotal role in employee wellness in the new workspace.

And that’s it! I hope that these insights from Nicole have been valuable to those of you reading. If you've got questions for Nicole, you can connect with her on Linkedin.

One more thing: starting March 17, 2022, you can join me for a LIVE 3-Part Training. This FREE 3-part training series is designed to help you bring in MORE clients for your Ergonomics Services. This training is for anyone who is passionate about Ergonomics, whether you’re just starting or you've been in the industry for over a decade. Sign up now to save your seat.


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