Avoiding Shop Shoulder

Scott Massey

This month we are happy to offer an article by NECPA member Diana LeClaire, a physical therapist by training who now runs her own sewing machine at Carriage House Canvas. She brings us some simple steps to create more a ergonomically-friendly set up that will help to avoid common aches and pains many of us face in our day's work.  

The other day I sat down to my sewing machine,  and within a couple of hours I started to get uncomfortable.  I stretched,  but my shoulder was aching.  After lunch it intensified, but I continued sewing. “Must be age”..... “I must have hurt myself the other day and not realized it”...   “Miraculously” over the weekend I was fine.    Back on the machine Monday,  and the pain started again.  Sound familiar??

As a physical therapist by training,  I sought to find the source of my intermittent shoulder pain. First thing,  check the environment.  “Hey,  my chair height is not right any more!”  I adjusted the height,   and immediately eliminated the cause of the pain.  

It was a simple fix for me, but it made me painfully aware of how important our shop environment is for our posture/ well-being. (No pun intended!)  We do what we have to do in order to get the job done,  and unfortunately our bodies have to pay the price. Thus, the idea for this article;  to share with others way to lessen the risk of injury in the canvas shop. 


1. Take a quick look at the area where you spend the most amount of time, and concentrate on that area.   Is there a certain movement that has to be done over and over?  If so, is there a way to avoid repetitive stress injuries?   Rotating out staff,  or rotating out the job will help reduce chance for “repetition injury”.

2. Consider if there are mechanical alternatives to assist with the job.   We rigged up rope and pullies for lifting the canvas out of the wash tub,  as well as for lifting the rack off of the van. We have a wagon in the shop for moving heavy/ bulky items.

3. Check your posture seating when at the work table / desk.  Feet should be flat on the floor/  supported. Hips and knees bent to 90 degrees.  Back should be upright.  Table height should allow for elbows to rest comfortably.  Bring the chair up to the table, to avoid slumping. If working at the computer,  make sure that the screen is at a height so that you don't have to tip your head to look down at it.

4. What  is  your table height?  As I am fairly tall, our shop tables are set at 36”  from the floor, which is the ideal height for me to work at.  Are variable station heights an option in your shop?  If someone is going to be standing at the table all day,  consider rubber mats to avoid fatigue.  

5. Where are items that are most frequently used kept? They should be between knee height and shoulder height for easy access.  Store heavier items lower, and lighter items higher.  For ease of access from the sewing station, keep items most frequently used within easy reach.  Ideally, you should not have to reach further than your wrist for a “Stress free work zone”.   Consider mounting bobbins on a magnetic rack next to the machine.  Scissors should be easy to access  -  we mounted a hook on the sewing machine stand so that there is minimum effort to reach them.  (Plus, it reduces effort/  increases productivity.)

6. Don't be afraid to ask for help when moving bimini bars as they can be unwieldy.   Asking for assistance is not the sign of whimpiness, but rather smartness!  You would not believe the number of back injuries that occur with lifting relatively light loads.

7.  Listen to your body!!  It will thank you for it,  and hopefully you will have many more happy and productive years in the industry!

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