Body Language


Remember your mother nagging you not to sit too close to the TV? She said that if you sat too close, one day you might go blind.

Mom's pestering didn't stop there. She prodded you to sit up straight at the dinner table and goaded you into exercise when you spent too many hours watching "Gilligan's Island."

Little did Mom know that your childhood behavior was a precursor to the way you would live your adult life - hunched over, staring at a tube, rarely getting outside for a breath of air.

In fact, these days you'll be hard pressed to find an office worker who isn't tied to a computer terminal at least part of the day. Worse yet, many of those workers go home and spend more hours in front of their personal computers - surfing the Web, e-mailing relatives, chatting with friends on AOL, or agonizing over their taxes.

Today, more than 42 percent of America's homes have computers, and that number is expected to rise steadily over the next five years. As computer use has increased, so has the incidence of repetitive stress injury (RSI), a catchall term for a variety of painful, debilitating afflictions of the arms, hands, neck and back. All of them result from too much keyboarding and mousing around.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which studied RSI from 1980 to 1995, found that the number of injuries accelerated as computers invaded the office. For example, from 1980 to 1986, RSI reports remained steady at fewer than 50,000 per year. But in 1987, about the time desktop computers were becoming commonplace, RSI reports doubled. By 1994, when RSI peaked, OSHA recorded 322,000 cases.

Alan Hedge, a professor at Cornell University's Department of Design and Environmental Analysis, estimates that office-inflicted wrist and arm injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome account for 50 percent of today's worker's compensation claims. But Hedge sees other dangers, too.

"Eyestrain effects around 45 percent of all office workers," he said. Eyestrain and irritation are associated with screen glare, poor office lighting and poor screen image quality.

And there are backache and back problems. Many, related to computer usage, can be tied to poor seat position.

So what can you do to keep yourself from becoming another statistic?

Listen to your mother - what else? Mom might have missed the mark on that blindness thing. But she was right about maintaining good posture, keeping a fair distance between you and the tube, and moving around now and then.

"The key issue is training people to be aware of the risk factors and what they can do in their day-to-day activities to control and recognize potential problems," says Peter M. Budnick, president Ergo Web, a Utah-based ergonomics consulting firm.

There are a few simple steps computer users can take to reduce stress on their bodies. Positioning the keyboard is critical, but according to Cornell's Hedge, but most of us do it the wrong way, with the keyboard flat or tilted slightly upward.

"To relieve upper body postural stress, use a tilt-down keyboard system, where you can adjust and place the keyboard just above your lap, gently sloping it away from you so that your shoulders, arms and wrists remain relaxed when you type," he says. Ergonomists tout the new generation of "split" keyboards. The Microsoft Natural Keyboard and similar devices divide the ,, keyboard in half and angle both sides outward to relieve wrist pressure. The latest wrinkle in this design, the SmartBoard from Darwin Keyboards, has key caps that get slightly wider as they get further away from the center to improve accuracy.

Meanwhile, Rani Lueder, a California ergonomist and co-author of "Hard Facts About Soft Machines," says the mouse has brought an entirely new stress point to the workplace. "It's very important too that your mouse or trackpad is at the same level as your keyboard. Lots of people suffer neck, back and arm strain because they are constantly overreaching for the mouse," she explained. "Your mouse should be positioned right next to your keyboard, less than an inch away."

Lueder recommends products such as the PC Caddy, which allow you to adjust the keyboard and mouse positions.

Your chair is also important, and a good one can be expensive. Ergonomists agree that chair should have an adjustable height control and good lower back support. But there are different theories about the proper seating position.

"Some people recommend you always sit in what is called a '90-90-90' posture, basically where your arms, hips and legs are all held at a perfect 90-degree angle, in a kind of tight upright posture. I don't agree," Budnick says. "Generally, good posture is important, but each person is different, and you have to find the position and chair that works best for you."

Lueder agrees that there's such a thing as too much good posture. "Sitting upright all the time puts a strain on your back. Your chair should allow you a full range of movement, not only with your arms in terms of having adjustable arm rests, but also in terms of back support. The chair should allow you to lean back, while still supporting your lower back and follow along with your full range of movement," she says.

She also argues that in the name of ergonomics, too many workers keep their chairs too low. "You should actually position your chair so you are sitting with the top of your monitor at eye level. If you position yourself too low, below your normal knee height, that ends up putting more pressure on your back. Positioning your legs in a relaxed angle, with them either touching the floor, without putting strain on them, or placing a footrest underneath reduces stress as well," she says.

A good chair can cost $500 to $1,000, and ergonomists say that for that kind of money, you should make sure it fits.

"Find a store that will let you try the chair for a week. That way you'll get a good idea of how well the chair will accommodate your particular work environment and you," says Lueder. "Heavy people will need a larger seat pan than normal-sized individuals. And short, petite types need a different chair than the average-size person."

The third element in workplace stress is eye fatigue, most of which comes from glare.

To reduce eyestrain, Hedge recommends an optical glass anti-glare filter for traditional computer screens, or better yet, one of the new, flat-panel liquid crystal display monitors - but at $2,000 and up, these LCD screens are still too expensive for most buyers.

Where you put your monitor can big difference, too.

"I see a lot of people positioning their monitors off to the side, and this can cause neck and back strain. It should be right in

front of your face," says Budnick. But just like Mother said, not too close. Most experts say it should be at least at arm's length.

Finally, the best way to stay healthy at work is to take a break from it.

Hedge recommends "frequent short stretch breaks where you stand up, move around, do something else entirely different, like grabbing a cup of coffee."

Just gazing out the window from time to time, focusing on something at least 20 feet away, can work wonders, too.

"You need to let the muscles inside the eye relax every 10 minutes or so," says Hedge. "And make sure you blink. When you work at the computer your eye blink rate falls to about one third of normal and more surface of the eye is exposed to the air."

Budnick says the best preventive medicine is to listen to your body and specifically watch what you do in your off time: "Your hobbies may be contributing to work-related stresses. You can't really separate your working life from your nonworking life. If you spend all day typing, then come home and crochet for hours, you're stressing the same parts of your body.

Want to learn more?

Microsoft Ergonomics Page

Lots of Natural Keyboard hype, but otherwise a great how-to site. Includes tips on arranging your work space, adjusting a chair and exercising to keep limber.

Cornell University Ergonomics Web

Summaries of Cornell's ergonomic studies and reports, along with videos and links to ergonomic study literature. Includes reports on carpet emissions, sick building syndrome, and office lighting.

OSHA's Ergonomics Site

Links to products and studies, along with a comprehensive list of ergonomic Web sites.

Bureau of Labor Health Statistics Page

ZTC Not much hype here, but lots of data on injuries in the workplace. Data is broken out by industry, injury.


Links to ergonomic products, including a keyword-searchable buyer's guide for keyboards, mice, chairs and other paraphernalia.

Typing Injury FAQ Page

Studies, reports, and links to information about repetitive stress injuries. The best place to find help for keyboarding discomfort. Includes information on keyboard alternatives such as speech recognition.

Bad Design Site

You think your workplace is a deathtrap? Check out these examples of the worst in human interface design.

Ergonomics Links Page

Pub Date: 5/04/98

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