A Day in the Life of an Ergonomics Occupational Therapist
For today’s article, we’re featuring this guest post of a day in the life of ergonomics occupational therapist Kirsten Beshay, OTR/L. We want to give a huge thanks to Kirsten for sharing her experiences with tips to get started in ergonomics OT. Like this day in the life article? Be sure to also check out our full Day in the Life series here!
The practice area of ergonomics is one of the best-kept secrets of the OT world. As occupational therapy practitioners (OTPs), we’re able to educate, evaluate, and equip our clients about proper ergonomics. We can also lead well-being programs with an ergonomic focus. That said, less than 2% of OT practitioners currently work in the practice area of ergonomics(1).
But first, what is ergonomics? Here’s my favorite definition:
Ergonomics is “the science of work: of the people who do it and the ways it is done; the tools and equipment they use, the places they work in, and the psychosocial aspects of the working situation”(2).
When I was an occupational therapy student, I didn’t know much about the practice area myself. My program had taught me ergonomic principles, but I left school with no idea how I could actually find a job in it. After a year of awkward LinkedIn messages, job site searches, and informational interviews, I was able to move into the practice area from my original position as an acute care occupational therapist.
Since then, I’ve spent five years as an ergonomic specialist contracted on the Google Global Ergonomics Team, learning and traveling. (I’ve also enjoyed the free food along the way!) Now I have branched out into ergonomic consulting and education.
I have found that the practice area of ergonomics means less stress and fewer physical and emotional demands for me, while I’m still able to use my clinical skills and creativity. My goal by sharing my typical day is to make it easier for OTPs to dive into the practice area that I’ve grown to love so much.
My Day in the Life as an Ergonomics Occupational Therapist
On an average day, I spend the majority of my time conducting ergonomic assessments for individual clients within a company. More often than not, these are for people working in offices, although I also evaluate lab and industrial spaces too.
To conduct a 30-minute ergonomic assessment for an office worker, I can provide two types of evaluations:
In pre-pandemic times, this was always the more popular option! However, as offices shift back to normal at different paces, these are becoming popular again.
Step 1 – Interview
Once I locate the client at their desk, I outline the steps of the assessment and begin by asking an open-ended question about what led them to request assistance. (Most of my assessments are initiated by the employee.)
As they share, I ask follow-up questions about any medical history they’re willing to share, and any discomfort they may have (such as location and severity, and any time or task patterns involved). I also ask for their height and hand dominance, as well as the type of tasks that they do in a typical day, and how often they move from their desk.
Step 2 – Desk & Chair Adjustments
Next, I move in sequence through their set-up and adjust and educate on the placement and use of each piece of equipment.
For instance, I might begin by measuring the desk height and their elbow height, then adjusting the chair height to bring their elbows to a 90-degree angle. If their feet dangle, I pull a box under their feet or recommend a basic footrest to bring their knees and ankles into 90-degree angles. (Right angles are an ergonomist’s best friend!)
By the 25-minute mark of the assessment, I have moved through these pieces of the workspace, usually in this order:
- Desk height (and their proximity to the desk)
- Chair position (such as seat height, seat depth, backrest angle and height, lumbar support, and armrest position)
- Input device use and placement (including keyboard position and style recommendations, mouse placement, neutral wrist position when typing and mousing)
- Screen settings (such as height, distance, angle, location, and brightness, for monitor and/or laptop screens)
- Well-being and movement (including encouraging short breaks out of the chair every hour, different recommended positions, eye/back/shoulder/wrist stretches as needed, and task alternation)
Step 3 – Questions & Follow-Up
Most importantly, I leave 5 minutes at the end of the assessment for questions that haven’t yet been addressed. After the assessment time, I write up quick notes on my observations and any adjustments made, and I send a simple report back to the client with a list of linked equipment recommendations.
Virtual assessments can be wonderful time savers, as I don’t need to travel between offices and can’t get lost finding a desk. My video call assessments look very similar to my in-person assessments, with the addition of cueing the client to show me their workspace via their webcam at the beginning Step 2. I don’t take measurements for obvious reasons, but I rely on visual markers to recommend equipment placement.
After I’ve gotten a glimpse of the workspace on the video call, I ask the client to place the webcam (or laptop with inbuilt webcam) at the edge of the desk, perpendicularly to them. (This means that I can see a side view of the client’s posture as well as the keyboard and mouse). Many clients need reassurance and repeated instructions for webcam placement, but once it’s placed, it doesn’t need to be moved again during the assessment.
I also cue my clients to make their own adjustments to their equipment during the video call. Again, this requires patience and encouragement at times, but with clear instructions and demonstrations from me, we always get there!
Many occupational therapists are intimidated by video call assessments, but they are a great alternative to in-person appointments. I often see clients in their home workspaces on video calls, which allows me to get more creative about the equipment solutions that they can try during the call.
While most of my clients are seen one-on-one, I love giving team presentations about ergonomics as this allows me to take a preventative approach. I typically give a 30-minute presentation in a conference room, followed by a walk-through of the team’s workspace to answer any individual questions.
While I don’t conduct risk assessments every day, they are an important part of my day when they occur. I meet the team or specific client involved in their space, and I take detailed measurements and photos/videos of workers completing their daily tasks. I then return to my desk to analyze my data with one of a few standardized ergonomic assessments (such as the Rapid Entire Body Assessment, or REBA).
This informs the report that I write up for the team and the recommendations for task variation, team education, equipment orders, and space reorganization that I make.
The best part of being more integrated with a company as an ergonomic consultant is the collaboration I can have with other teams. I frequently meet with operations teams to discuss furniture options and challenges, and with human resources teams to discuss how I can support any employees who might be injured on the job. It’s so important to address problems quickly as they come up, and brainstorming solutions with different teams is a big help.
I can’t forget to include my travel time between workspaces and offices! On a typical day, this might take an hour of my time.
Advice for Anyone Interested in Ergonomics OT
Does this sound like something that you’d like to do? Here are some additional resources that can help you along the way:
1. Get connected.
If you’re an AOTA member, join their Work & Industry special interest group. You can also join my Facebook group, “Ergonomics for OT & PT Practitioners.”
2. Keep an eye out for jobs.
Search Indeed.com or other job sites with the terms “ergonomic specialist” to give you an idea of who’s hiring in your area.
Keep an eye out on the My OT Spot blog for another ergonomics article with more tips coming soon!
The move into the practice area of ergonomics has been such a good fit for me. Getting experience in different settings within the workplace helped me to hone my skills as an occupational therapist practicing in ergonomics.
If you’re interested in working in the practice area of ergonomics, you can visit my website, Thrive Ergonomics, for more tips and resources to guide you.
Kirsten Beshay, OTD, MA, OTR/L, CIEE, CEAS I & III is a licensed occupational therapist and certified industrial ergonomic evaluator who recently released the online course “Ergonomics for OT and PT Practitioners.” She is an OT with 5 years of experience as a contractor for the Global Google Ergonomics Team. Kirsten is also a workplace ergonomic consultant and recently completed her Doctorate in Occupational Therapy (OTD) at Boston University with a focus on ergonomics, and she recently received a grant to study the ergonomics of working from home. Kirsten is also a part-time school-based OT who loves promoting ergonomics in the classroom.
- American Occupational Therapy Association. (2020). 2019 workforce & salary survey.
- Pheasant, S., & Haslegrave, C. M. (2005). Bodyspace: Anthropometry, ergonomics, and the design of work (3rd ed.). CRC Press.