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Ergonomics

The term ergonomics comes from the Greek words ergos meaning “work” and nomos, meaning “study of” or “natural laws of.” The science of ergonomics dates back to the 1940s, but only in the past decade has it become a commonly known term. This is due to the recent epidemic of office-related injuries and the large body of equipment and information designed to solve these problems.

The Ergo Man
© Fellowes Computerware, Itasca, Illinois
Modern-day office ergonomics is the science of providing furniture, tools, and equipment that improve the comfort, safety, and health of the office worker. We are not ergonomic experts, but we have studied the literature on the subject and there seem to be some basic principles on which most professionals agree. The following contains some of the basics as an introduction to the subject.

Some Ergonomic Specifics

  • Monitor should be an arm’s length or a bit more from your eyes. Conventional ergonomic wisdom generally advises people that the center of the screen should be where their gaze falls naturally, with the top of the screen at eye level, and that the monitor should be tilted slightly to match the angle of one’s gaze. A 1995 report, Vision Comfort at VDTs, by Stewart B. Leavitt, however, comes to a different conclusion: the monitor should be lower than this, in a range with the top about 15° below horizontal eye level to the lower limit where the bottom of the screen is 45° below eye level. If you are concerned about vision comfort and especially if you have eye problems such as blurring vision, burning eyes, or even neck and shoulder pain, we recommend that you read this detailed report in Stretching in the Office (see p. 88). An adjustable stand or monitor riser (or homemade box) will allow you to make adjustments.
  • Keyboard should be set at a height so that forearms, wrists, and hands are aligned when keyboarding, and parallel to the floor, or bent slightly down from elbow to hand — the hands are never bent back. Preferably the stand or desk on which the keyboard sits is adjustable. There are many “ergonomic” keyboards available, some of them quite unusual.
  • Mouse pad should be at a height where your arm, wrist, and hand are aligned and in “neutral.” It is best if the stand or desk the mouse pad sits on is adjustable.
  • Wrists, while you are actually typing, should not rest on anything, and should not be bent up, down, or to the side. Your arms should move your hands around, and instead of resting your wrists, you should stretch to hit keys with your fingers. (There are wrist-rest devices on the market that give you a place to rest your hands, but only when pausing from typing, not while you are typing.)
  • Chair should be adjustable and comfortable. Set it so that your thighs are either parallel to the floor or at a slight downward angle from the hips to the knees. You should sit straight, not slouching, and not straining forward to reach the keys. Stay relaxed. Anything that creates awkward reaches or angles in the body will create problems.

Further Tips

  • Align your wrists. Wrist also should not be bent to the side; instead your fingers should be in a straight line with your forearm, as viewed from above.
  • The proper keyboard angle. Research suggests that it may be better to tilt the back edge of your keyboard down, away from you. Put a prop an inch or two thick under the edge of the keyboard closest to you, but make sure the whole thing is still low enough so you aren’t reaching up.
  • Frequently change positions. Movement is important during the working day. You may want to adjust the height or angle of your chair after a few hours, or to stand after sitting for a period. In fact, as reported in the ergonomic newsletter OccuTrax (Black Mountain, NC), “Ergonomic studies have verified that the least stressful working position is one where the individual can ‘sit and stand’ rather than sit ‘or’ stand.”
  • Don’t pound the keys. Use a light touch.
  • Use two hands to perform double-key operations. such as Command-P, Ctrl-C or Alt-F, instead of twisting one hand to do them. Move your whole hand to hit function keys with your strong fingers instead of stretching to reach them.
  • Hold the mouse lightly. Don’t grip it hard or squeeze it. Place it where you don’t have to reach up or over very far to use it (close to the keyboard is best). Better yet: learn and use equivalent keyboard commands whenever possible, as no pointing device is risk-free. Even trackballs have injured users.
  • Keep your arms and hands warm. Cold muscles and tendons are at much greater risk for overuse injuries, and many offices are overly air-conditioned.
  • Rest. When you stop typing for a while, rest your hands in your lap and/or on their sides instead of leaving them on the keyboard.
  • Stretch. Stretch frequently throughout the day (see Stretching in the Office pages 52 to 55).
  • Move. Get up and move whenever you can. If possible, walk to talk to a near-by colleague instead of using the phone. Try using the stairs (at least for some floors) instead of the elevator.
  • Take breaks. Holding utterly still is deadly. Some experts suggest a 10-second break every 3 minutes, others suggest a 1-minute break every 15 minutes, a 5-minute break every half hour, or a 15-minute break every 2 hours, etc. You can stretch and/or move around during these breaks.
  • Eliminate unnecessary computer usage. No ergonomic changes, fancy keyboards, or exercises are going to help if you are typing more than your body can handle. Ask yourself: can some electronic-mail messages be replaced by telephone calls? How much time are you spending on the Internet? And watch it on the computer video games, which often involve long, unbroken sessions of very tense keyboard or controller use. If nothing else, pause the game every 3 to 4 minutes. Don’t sacrifice your hands to a game!

Take Care of Your Eyes

Anyone who operates a computer regularly would be wise to get a complete eye exam. Even minor sight defects should be corrected with lenses designed specifically for computer usage. Many computer operators, if they do not have to focus on distant objects while keyboarding, utilize bifocal lenses with the top calibrated for the computer screen and the bottom for reading. Or, if distant vision is required, the bifocals can have the top designed for distance and the bottom for the computer. Progressive lenses are also an option, where magnification is a gradient from top to bottom.

Glare on the screen should be avoided. A glare hood may help if there are overhead lights.Try to have any windows to the side, not in front of or behind the computer.

It’s also very important to look up from the screen periodically and to focus on a distant object for a minute or two; do some stretches while doing this.

Voice-Recognition Technology

Voice recognition systems allow you to input information with your voice or in conjunction with the keyboard and mouse. These entail software, and in some cases, hardware, and are very important for people who can no longer use a keyboard. (They can also be extremely useful while healing takes place.) See references to the Onsight Ergonomic Products Resources Guide in Stretching in the Office on page 91 and also the Typing Injury FAQ Website on page 91 in the Bibliography.

The Environment

Lighting, wall color, ventilation, reflections, electromagnetic fields, sounds, air quality, view, and other factors are all important considerations in an office environment. There are many sources of information on this topic you can investigate.

Resources

Click here for a list of Online Ergonomic Resources.

from Stretching in the Office © 2002 Bob Anderson, Jean Anderson, and Shelter Publications, Inc., Bolinas, CA

 
  1. Stretching for flexibility 
  1. Lifting for strength 
  1. Moving for stronger heart and lungs and better circulation
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