Are you ergonomically correct?
December 4, 2000
Gone are the days when the systems administrator spent all her waking hours stuck in a tiny, warm closet with four servers humming loudly in her ears. Back then, she undoubtedly could be found, day after day, banging away industriously on a keyboard, sitting on a wobbly chair at a broken down table, among hubs, routers and miscellaneous wires and equipment.
Employers are now complying with a new (November 13, 2000) Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) ruling. Therefore, the uncomfortable positions IT employees have been put in should become just another war story, a memory of our checkered past.
OSHA established concrete guidance to help employers determine when they need to take action and when they have fulfilled their obligations. This controversial ruling will possibly "spare 460,000 workers painful injuries and save an average of $9.1 billion each year," according to OSHA Administrator Charles Jeffress.
It has become politically correct to prevent on-the-job repetitive stress injuries, a common ailment in the IT industry. But why should you, as the employee or as the employer, give a darn?
Really, it will help yourself, or your employees, feel better. More specifically, to avoid or reduce these widespread symptoms: loss of muscle function, inability to complete everyday tasks, achy joints, tendons, muscles, nerves, ligaments and spinal discs.
When you're in charge
The OSHA ruling deals with injuries caused by workers doing the same task repeatedly. It requires the employer to take measures to help workers with these injuries, as well as to prevent new impairments.
Some people feel the ergonomics standard is a clumsy safety tool that will not help, due in part to the medical and scientific uncertainty in diagnosing repetitive stress injuries. Not to mention the cost; OSHA estimates total outlay will reach $4.2 billion a year for businesses to comply. That's a lot of wrist pads.
But no matter what your viewpoint, it is to your advantage, as a responsible employer, to get your act together. Who currently pays attention to ergonomics in your workplace? Be sure that person knows his/her role. Clearly communicate with the bigwigs, also. If spending decisions need to be made (Should you buy new chairs or anti-glare screens?) then the upper management should be made fully aware of what's going on for budgeting purposes - and they must be in total support of compliance. Otherwise, you have an ergo-person-in-charge of nothing.
Lucky for you, OSHA has implemented requirements for temporary work restrictions and even removing work entirely, if there is justified cause. But why put yourself through the pain of repetitive stress injury when you may be able to prevent it?
A byte of prevention
- Eyestrain can be prevented by adjusting your computer screen so that it is slightly below eye level and about 25 inches - or more - from your eyes. Adjust lighting to minimize glare and reflections. Screen colors are best kept as dark letters on a light background. While the oh-so-attractive lime green background with yellow lettering is pleasing to your officemate’s particular senses (maybe because she was dropped on her head as a child?), you can now tell her, with authority, that it is bad for her eyes.
- It is uncomfortable to maintain the same posture for an extended length of time. Never mind the time you spent working as a mime, sitting on an imaginary chair, during your college years. Changing positions is your best bet. In other words, the best posture for working on the computer is the next posture.
- How about those hands and wrists? According to conventional wisdom, wrists should be kept straight. So, if your wrists are bent backward or forward, for extended periods, try a wrist rest or change the slope of the keyboard. If those pesky wrists are bent to the sides when using side keys, try a more accessible keyboard design. There are a lot of ergonomic friendly variations out there, such as the split keyboard. Sure they look funny. But who's laughing when they have carpal tunnel syndrome?
- Prolonged mouse use - this sounds like a warning label for cat food - may cause repetitive stress injuries to your hands and wrists, too. Try alternating hands (okay, so this one won't work for many of us uncoordinated oafs). Learn keystroke substitutions, take frequent breaks, and keep the mouse close to your body. Try an extended keyboard tray. Or just ask an intern to stand next to you all day, holding the mouse pad.
- Do your feet dangle? Well lower your chair for goodness sake. Or lower your work surface - which may be easier said than done. There's always a geeky-looking foot rest that you can use as a last resort. If your company will spring for one, that is.
- Try taking a very short break, say, 30 seconds, at 10-minute intervals. But take a 15-minute break every two hours. This doesn't mean you have to stop working entirely, though you'd probably like that. Just move around and do something completely different. Run to the copy machine, grab a glass of water, or return a phone call while standing on your head.
Just the facts
Individual comfort tempered by individual preference is the key to ergonomic correctness. At the very least, get up and get moving and you will be more fit, less bored, and less prone to ergonomic injuries. You are unique; therefore, your plan to resist injury should be addressed individually also. You have a lot of years of computing left, so plan on keeping them pain-free.