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Changing ergonomic times

I’ve had an unhealthy workstation for years and didn’t know it.

A few years ago, we had ergonomic consultants from a leading furniture manufacturer come in to do a consultation in our offices. They were appalled. Almost everyone in the building rested their keyboards on their desks. Most of our chairs provided little or no lumbar support. And no one had a clue about body positioning in front of a PC. Shortly thereafter, everyone had keyboard trays, back-friendly chairs, and personalized training on how to avoid repetitive stress in the workplace.

While most of these initiatives were good (especially the chairs), it turns out some of what they told us to do was just wrong. We recently have had another ergonomics consultant–call her Tina–in here. Tina is an occupational therapist who specializes in preventing repetitive stress. In particular, she told us of the dangers of keyboard trays: Many of her patients showed no signs of carpal-tunnel syndrome until after their employers installed keyboard trays. Now keyboard trays are blamed for an increase in keyboard-related injuries because they encourage users to place undue pressure on the meat part of the hand.

By the time Tina left, we had a graveyard of keyboard trays by the freight elevator and everyone had their keyboards back on their desks where they belonged. Of course, we couldn’t just go back to the way things were before the trays were installed. She was careful to properly position each employee relative to the keyboards and monitors on their desks and to position their chairs relative to their desks. The keyboard needs to be at forearm’s length away from the edge of the desk; the monitor needs to be head-high and an arm’s length away from the worker; and the chair needs to allow each joint of the legs to be less than or equal to 90-degrees while allowing the worker’s arms to rest comfortably on the desk.

Beyond the repositioning of each employee in the office, Tina’s main message was the false sense of security trays and other “ergonomic” furniture give employees. People think that just because they have a keyboard tray, they needn’t worry about repetitive stress. The reality is that ergonomic furniture plays only a small part in reducing repetitive stress injuries. The most important thing for PC users to do is to regularly exercise the areas of their bodies most susceptible to injury: The back, neck, shoulders, forearms, wrists, and hands. Lack of attention to exercise in these areas will lead to injury no matter how well you are positioned. The other main point is taking breaks. Never spend more than an hour in the same position in front of your PC without getting up, walking around, and doing some neck and shoulder exercise.

The changes in the state of the art of ergonomics bring a lot of questions. What should companies do to protect themselves against disability claims and lost productivity? It is clear from our experience that bringing in consultants from a furniture manufacturer may not be the best course of action. They will be inclined to suggest products that are supposed to help while not stressing the importance of exercise and other stress-reduction activities. Better to bring in independent experts in occupational safety. While they may suggest furniture modifications, they will bring a more holistic approach to their consultation.

One other point. It was clear to me that the onus is now on employees to ensure that they don’t get hurt. Whereas employers lived in fear of the very words “carpal tunnel” in the past, now they can just claim that the employee didn’t do enough exercise to avoid injury. Tina suggested five minutes an hour of exercise. I don’t know a single employee in this office who makes sure to do that five minutes an hour, especially with deadlines hanging over their heads. I have received some funny looks from people walking by my office while I’m in the middle of an exercise routine (I have a glass wall in my office). I feel like a total slacker while I’m doing them. Yet my career may depend on taking Tina’s advice. And I may not have as much recourse if I do get injured now that responsibility for my health has been laid squarely on my shoulders.

James Mathewson is editor of ComputerUser magazine and

What does your company do to protect its workers from repetitive stress injuries? Send your thoughts to [email protected]

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