Ergonomics Exposed

Working long hours on a computer can create many physical ailments. These include eye strain and a host of musculoskeletal disorders. You and I should know; we have suffered many of them and need to consciously work at preventing new problems.

As you are reading this, how far away are your eyes from the monitor screen and is your screen positioned at the proper height?  Is your keyboard mounted on a six degree negative pitch tray and adjusted to the proper height and position correctly for you?  Is your mouse at a 90 degree angle with your elbows.  Are your feet flat on the floor or on a carefully positioned footrest?  If you are like most, the chances are probably not.

Ergonomics Defined

According to the International Ergonomics Association, “Ergonomics (or human factors) is the scientific discipline concerned with the understanding of interactions among humans and other elements of a system, and the profession that applies theory, principles, data and methods to design in order to optimize human well-being and overall system performance.”

There are standards designed for many job categories, from high risk environments like working with biohazards and steel production to operating cash registers in a grocery store.  In some cases, the standards are reflected in labor laws.  Sadly to say, but there are no U.S. federal laws or standards for general workers that spend most of their day working with a computer.

According to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), work-related musculoskeletal disorders cost American workers more than 600,000 workdays each year.

Loving the ones that hurt you

If you work in the information technology sector, you may spend your entire work day sitting in one location banging on keyboard, pushing a mouse around, and staring at a screen. If you love working with computers, you may spend more time on a home computer doing research, playing games or answering emails.

Your love affair with computers may have begun in high school and continued when you landed your first full time computer-based job.  You may spend many long hours staring at a green screen terminal doing your job successfully.  Sometimes, you may go home at night with a distinct burning in both eyes that often lingers until after you fall asleep.  Within a year, your eyesight may have degraded from 20-20 to 20-30 and you may have to get glasses.  Modern LCDs are much easier on the eyes but excessive periods of work can still cause eye strain and damage your vision.

Musculoskeletal problems are the most common type of ailment from computer use. These are brought about from repetitive movements used in typing and mousing.  At first, the physical problems you may have felt were transitory, but a few years ago, you may have developed persistent pain in your neck and shoulder areas.  The main problem may have been your posture and the fact that you took too few breaks, in other words:  short frequent rest periods and stretches.  A little physical therapy may correct your problem and you could be fine since becoming aware of the issues and knowing how to prevent them.  Of course, younger workers recover from strains faster than us “veterans.”

The ISO standards and other sources

The IEA has published a set of standards, collectively ISO 9241, on how to set up a safe computer work area. The ISO 9241 standards include 17 reports covering every aspect of work area design and human computer interaction. The European Committee on Standardization (CEN) has adopted the ISO 9241 standards CEN TC 122.  While the official ISO 9241 standards can be downloaded in PDF format, they must be purchased. 

Since the U.S. has been slow to adopt federal standards for general office computer work, some states have pushed ahead with their own, as have professional organizations.  The Lawrence Livermore National Labs published their own ergonomic standards that are free to peruse.

Quick Easy Tips

While you are researching the best way to rearrange your workstation/area, here are some quick tips that can help you.  Remember,

It is important to have a proper work posture and work environment that allow you to:

  • Be aware of your own posture.
  • Try to feel relaxed and not restricted.
  • Keep your wrists in a neutral position.
  • Work with your elbows as close to your body as possible.
  • Rest your hands, wrists and arms against something soft.  Avoid sharp and hard support.
  • Keep your mouse and keyboard close to your body and at a six degree negative pitch.
  • Keep your hands, arms and shoulders warm, it will enhance the blood circulation, which reduces the risk of injuries.
  • Avoid excessive hand, finger and wrist force when you use your keyboard and mouse.
  • Avoid static work postures; vary your way of working.  Stand up and walk around.
  • Take breaks away from your computer on a regular basis at least once an hour; both short and long ones will help reduce fatigue.
  • Your legs need the break as much as your arms.
  • Use hand exercises and massages, work your neck, shoulder areas and don’t forget to stretch the lower back muscles.

Organize and plan your workstation/area site in a way that allows you to:

  • Have frequently used material close to you.
  • Move freely and try not to be restricted by equipment and furniture.
  • Use a document holder that can be placed directly in front of you and your computer screen. (Try to only allow the use of your eyes to move from the screen to your paper…Not your head and neck)

Adjust your chair and the table in a way that allows you to:

  • Sit upright or stand up straight.
  • Have your thighs parallel with the floor.  If your legs tend to rest on the front edge of the chair, lower your chair a bit.  Your feet should rest flat on the floor; if necessary, use a footrest.
  • Keep your forearms horizontal.  Keep the bend of the arm close to 90 degrees while using the keyboard or the mouse.
  • Have your chair supporting your thighs and lower back.  The backrest should be adjustable so that it’s height and angle can be tailored to your comfort.
  • Have your armrests adjusted to meet the natural, relaxed height of your elbows.
  • Adjust the height of the table to ensure a comfortable working posture.  Vary your position between sitting and standing, if at all possible.

Arrange the lights around you to:

  • Avoid strain on your eyes from insufficient lighting.  In an environment where computers are used, there should be comparatively dim indirect light, as well as stronger direct light.
  • Avoid equipment, furniture, material, and windows that give off disturbing reflections.
  • Avoid windows in front of and behind you.  Windows in front of you may daze your eyes. Windows behind you may illuminate your display in a way that decreases its visibility.

Arranging and positioning for use of your monitor:

  • Adjust your monitor so that the top of your screen is positioned slightly below eye level and the distance of your monitor is positioned approximately arms length away from your body. 
  • Position the monitor a little lower than mentioned above if you have bifocal lenses. This arrangement will help you to avoid a repetitive nod movement during computer work.
  • Use an anti-glare guard to help reduce glare and, particularly, if you wear glasses.
  • Minor adjustments to your workstation/area and style can help you avoid physical problems if you spend a lot of time working with computers.

The above statements do not represent a complete ergonomic guide for computer work.  Even if you follow all the advice above and only use ergonomic named products, you may still suffer from work-related problems. 

It is very important to remember that if you suffer from any pain, numbness, weakness, swelling, cramps, undue heat, coldness or stiffness in hands, wrists, arms, neck or back, you should contact your doctor immediately.  The sooner you address these problems, the shorter your recovery time will be.