Inside Dentistry
August 2014
Volume 10, Issue 8

Protecting Your Most Valued Investment

Keep employees healthy by making proper workplace ergonomics a priority

Cindy M. Purdy, RDH, CEAS

You know the employees who make your day fly by smoothly—those who have handled the problems before you know they exist.

“My hygienist is always booked 2 months in advance.”

“Put Janice on it, she can fill a schedule before there are even openings!”

“Nobody can calm down little Johnny Jump-up like my assistant…she’s the best!”

Protect this investment! Show them that they are valued. If you have had to make it for any period of time without them, you have experienced the cost of losing these valuable employees. Of course, there is the obvious cost of the salary for a temp but what about those hidden costs? That temp may be capable of scaling teeth but where’s the comfort and reduced anxiety for the patient from seeing a trusted face when their examination reveals a hefty treatment plan? How often will your office manager be pulled away from their work to show the new assistant the room set-up for each of your procedures? Don’t forget all of those rescheduled appointments when the patients find out that their favorite hygienist won’t be seeing them today. Now you’re paying that temp to file charts, read magazines, or play Candy Crush in the lounge!

The Problem of Workplace Injuries

Everyone can understand missed days due to illness or personal issues, but what if the fact that they have been long-time employees of your practice is what leads to a valued employee’s demise? An American Dental Hygienists’ Association survey in 2007 found that 44.6% of hygienists reported shoulder injury, 34.2% neck injury, 32.1% carpal tunnel syndrome, and 27.4% back/spinal injury.1 In a survey conducted in 2012 of more than 1100 dental hygienists, 51% of respondents self-reported either single or multiple workplace injuries.2 This study revealed that hygienists proactively handle musculoskeletal disorders by stretching, core-fitness training, medications, therapeutic massage, or chiropractic treatment, but more importantly, 27% have temporarily and 38% have permanently decreased their work hours. These last two actions have adverse effects on every team member.

Neutral Position: Musculoskeletal Disorders

Neutral position is that body position where the spine, bones, muscles, discs, ligaments, and tendons are in their most stable and strongest position. To minimize the risk of musculoskeletal disorders, it is recommended to reduce any prolonged positioning beyond 20° past neutral position in each plane.

There are many products that you can consider to improve workplace wellness:

--Operator loupes, a headlight, and a saddle stool are the perfect combination to maintain neutral position.

--Non-sharpening instruments reduce repetitive stress to wrists and hands.

--Mirrors—get rid of those skinny handles to reduce excessive grip pressure. Crystal HD mirrors increase brightness and reduce eyestrain and fatigue.

--Latex in gloves causes constant compression of hand muscles. One particular company’s nitrile examination gloves are the first to be certified ergonomic.

--Cordless handpieces reduce hand strain and fatigue.

--Wedged seat cushions allow for healthier positioning in a traditional stool.

There are many tools or resources that can assist your employees in attaining the natural strength and stability required for the demands of a long and healthy dental career. These include:

--Self-applied deep pressure massage tools, which reduce trigger points, a pea-sized knot of muscle fibers resulting from overuse and stress

--DVDs that demonstrate exercises or chairside stretches that specifically target the unique muscle imbalances in dental professionals

--Hand exercisers that naturally strengthen the hand muscles that grip, open, and spread the hand

--An in-office consultation from a certified ergonomic assessment specialist to evaluate ergonomic challenges.

Making It a Win–Win Situation

Some offices have taken trips or offered a day of relaxation, movies and shopping to demonstrate employee value. Letting your employees know that you value them and their health does not have to be this extreme, however.

Strike a Bargain

Is there a service (eg, whitening, localized scaling and root planing, FMX series, fluoride varnish) that is being under promoted? Is there a product sitting on the shelf that always reaches its expiration date before it is sold? Ask your employees to increase these services by a certain percentage. Any amount exceeding the expected production will be put into an ergonomic fund that can be used at the employee’s choosing. Keep track of individual employee numbers to reward the more driven individuals.


For big-ticket or personal, customized items, offer to front the purchase for immediate recognition of the reward. For the employee to have full ownership of the item, an agreeable increment can be deducted from each of their subsequent paychecks.

Set a Budget

Allot each department a monthly supply budget. Determine a fair, workable amount and then let your employees work out a purchase schedule. They may want to upgrade a few instruments per month. Perhaps they are willing to use an off-name product for awhile to accumulate a financial surplus that could later be used toward a operator stool.

Take Credit Where Credit is Due

Come to your employees’ ergonomic rescue before they even know that they need help—and then be the hero! Be creative and make a big deal out of it. When the product arrives, sign a card, put a bow on the box and hand it to them. Let them know that this was your idea. Imagine their faces when you come into their operatory juggling a few exercise balls or if you conduct the morning huddle while doing stretching exercises.

So what was the cost of keeping me as a valued employee at my current office? Re­cog­nizing the strains of 34 years of clinical service, my doctor offered to purchase an orthotic for my thumb. $60—that’s all it cost. He looked into my world and offered something to make things a little easier for me. In turn, I will certainly do the same for him.


1. ADHA. Survey of dental hygienists in the United States: 2007. Chicago, IL: American Dental Hygienists’ Association, 2009.

2. Guignon AN, Purdy CM. Stop the pain! Greater Cleveland Dental Society website. www.gcds.org/Upload/Documents/Guignon%20-%20Stop%20The%20Pain.pdf. 2014. Accessed June 25, 2014.

About the Author

Cindy M. Purdy, RDH, CEAS, is a certified ergonomic assessment specialist, with an emphasis on improving dental personnel’s health and performance by creating safe in-office workstations. In addition, she provides strategic development and training for dental industry manufacturers, ergonomic education for dental hygiene students, and professional relations with key opinion leaders for manufacturing companies that focus on ergonomics within the dental industry. She continues to provide dental hygiene services in her hometown in rural Colorado and is a member of the CARES healthcare team at the Dorcy-Corwin Cancer Center in Pueblo, Colorado. She can be contacted at purdy.cindy@yahoo.com or 719-783-0704.

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