Registered dental hygienist Barbara O’Brien sits on a ball chair as she cleans the teeth of patient Elizabeth Joy Nations Wednesday afternoon at Dr. Brennan O’Brien’s dentist office. (Photo by Lauren Wood)

Archived Story

Local professionals practice ergonomics at the office

Published 2:02pm Sunday, May 20, 2012

NATCHEZ — Five years ago, Barbara O’Brien ended many of her workdays as a dental hygienist by popping a Motrin and rubbing her neck.

But for the last four years, when she gets home from work she feels refreshed, full of energy and ready to exercise.

O’Brien thinks the solution to her neck and back problems lies right below her behind.

When hovering over patients’ mouths all day, she sits on a stability ball — an inflatable rubber ball she fills with air using a bike pump.

The chair, made by Evolution, forces her balance using her core, which promotes good posture and the correct alignment of her spine and neck.

“It makes a difference in your evening, and in your life,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien was first introduced to the concept when reading a dental hygienist journal. Soon after, she and her late husband, Dr. Tommy O’Brien, got a chance to test one out four years ago at a dental convention in New Orleans.

She knew she the ball chair was for her.

Ginger Cowart, who teaches business and computer technology at Fallin Career and Technology Center, uses a ball chair and a foot rocker to improve blood flow in her legs and feet when she teaches. (Photo by Lauren Wood \ The Natchez Democrat)

“When I sat on it I just felt like my spinal cord lined up,” O’Brien said.

Dental hygienists are especially prone to back and neck pain, carpal tunnel syndrome and postural problems because they spend much of their day hunched over patients in awkward positions.

The chair comes with a base that keeps it still but allows it to roll toward her tools, similar to a regular office chair. The chair cost approximately $150. When it needs air, she pumps more in, and the air also controls the height of the chair.

Now, her muscles aren’t grumpy after work, she gets lots of curious compliments on it from patients, and she’s more fit.

“I’m always using my core,” O’Brien said.

Fallin Career and Technology Center teacher Ginger Cowart teaches ergonomics to her business and computer technology students. Ergonomics is the study of effects of the work environment on the health and wellness of employees.

Although she preached posture in the workplace to her students, Cowart hadn’t considered a stability ball chair until she noticed O’Brien’s when O’Brien cleaned Cowart’s teeth.

For three years Cowart has used the chair, which is made by Gaiam. It is similar to her hygienist’s, but Cowart’s has a lower back support.

“I used to get really bad tension headaches, and now (the headaches) are almost nonexistent,” Cowart said.

Cowart said, before the ball chair, she struggled to remember her posture int eh classroom. The chair has aided her comfort and muscle strain.

“You have to have good posture or you’ll fall off,” Cowart said.

Additionally, Fallin carpentry teacher Anthony Tuccio constructed Cowart a rocking footrest, which encourages better circulation for those sitting for long periods of time. The foot rest also decreases muscle strain and fatigue.

Cowart said similar items are on the market, but Tuccio’s wood-shop original works great.

Cowart gave the following ergonomic tips:

4 Take a break from the computer every 30 minutes to reduce eye strain.

4 Avoid facing an open window at the office, which adds glare to the computer glow.

4 Sit with your bottom near the back of a chair with thighs parallel to the floor.

4 Stretch the hands by touching palms and pushing fingers from side to side.

4 Use a massage therapist occasionally.

For more tips on ergonomics, visit the Occupational Safety and Health Administration website at

  • Chad Armstrong

     Judging from the computer workstation picture…. Ginger has  much to learn for office ergonomics….Ball chairs have significant tradeoffs in that they lack much of the support that comes with a traditional ergonomic chair. The ball chairs on good for periodical core exercise and can be decent with short term usage… but are called exercise balls for a reason… If really bad postures were taking place before the chair, the ball might have afforded better postures, however addressing better postures would more directly confront ergonomic issues.