Good ergonomic design in a dental surgery

Good ergonomic design in a dental surgery

A flash waiting room isn’t the sign of a good design. Here are seven tips for recognising good ergonomic design in a dental surgery. By Tiffany Cosgrove

So you have a vision for the design of your new practice. Natural light flooding into stark white treatment rooms filled with the latest and greatest equipment. A welcoming and comfortable waiting room, where your patients will be happy to spend time. And parking … lots of parking. And once you have built all that, you won’t really see any of it, because you’re staring into people’s mouths all day.

For a truly successful practice you need to think small. More specifically, you need to start with thinking about where you and your staff will spend most of the day. That’s the principal behind ergonomic design, which starts from looking at the smallest movements you make during the day through to the spaces surrounding you and the links between them. 

Mastery of ergonomic design is fundamental to the work of a great dental fit-out company. Which is why it’s often a better idea to bring in professionals rather than try to design things yourself. But understanding the ideas behind ergonomic design will help you understand what those companies are doing.

Make sure everything is in front of you

It’s surprising how much you move when you’re not moving much at all. When you’re practising four-handed dentistry, both you and your assistant are using your eyes, fingers, hands and wrists.

That process, of moving your eyes from a well-lit oral cavity to the natural light of the instruments and back, is tiring. Your back and arms will naturally tense up when you are reaching for instruments, which will also tire you.

Having everything in front of you makes a big difference to how you feel at the end of the day. Modern dental units accommodate this, but the principle should be applied to any of your work surfaces. 

Make sure the room is built around you

In a 2006 study of musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) in Queensland dentists, published in the Australian Dental Journal, 87.2 per cent of dentists reported having at least one symptom in the previous 12 months, most commonly neck, lower-back and shoulder pain. It comes from a combination of bending and keeping still in one position for a long time, then twisting.

The layout of the bench and room should therefore match the position you prefer to sit in. Some may prefer to work around the head of the chair, others slightly off to the side. The preferred working position of the dentist should determine the placement of the dental unit, benches and cupboards to minimise twisting. 

Look at your chair

The make and model of chair you use can also have an impact on the design of the room. You need to have enough circulation space for both yourself and your nurse. Sometimes that may involve angling the chair in the space available. Another important question is whether the dentist is left- or right-handed, or whether she wishes to accommodate for both. It’s not common, but a left-handed surgery may involve flipping everything 180 degrees.

Don’t forget your dental assistants

If your nurse is facing the back of the room, she has to have a work surface right in front of her, where she can mix up something or get what she wants with a minimum of movement, which is ergonomically efficient. She also needs a work surface that minimises movement. Without this, you end up with a staff problem as your auxiliary staff continue to take sick leave to fix their back problems.

Get the right bench for the right job

As a general rule, the distance of the bench from the dentist is about 700mm, but that may need to be adjusted depending on what you’re doing. If you are practising a specialty such as implantology or endodontics, it might be necessary to allow space for six-handed surgery. The larger circulation space needed will also have an impact on the way the space in the room is used.

Then check your light

Everyone likes a nice, light room. Natural light can make a space feel larger and more welcoming than the boxy surgeries of old. Dentists also need strong colour-corrective lighting to ensure colour matching on shades of teeth, and there is, of course, very bright task-lighting coming off chairs in surgeries. Natural light can help balance the discomfort of this lighting for patients and staff, who are exposed to it for long periods. 

But windows aren’t always the best solution. There are smart ways a good designer can use borrowed light (such as through the use of skylights or internal glazing), where you can get as much light as you would through a window. 

Think of the reception too

Of course, your reception area should not be ignored. It is, after all, the first place your patients see when they arrive at the practice. Howver, all the principles of ergonomics that apply to your workspace should also apply to the space for your front desk staff.

Administration staff should never be crammed or using 400mm-wide benches where there is no working area. Computers should be set at the right height to encourage a comfortable working position for the staff that will be there all day too.

Small changes, big differences

The benefits of keeping ergonomic design front of mind when your new surgery is being designed are more than just small changes. Good ergonomic design makes you and your staff comfortable, which has impacts on productivity and staff retention.

Too many practices don’t have that. And if you notice the assistant getting rid of their stool, because they have to walk around anyway, or standing up to work, then you can be sure there is a problem with the design. And the end result of that is they leave to find another place to work.  

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