For years, employers around the globe have poured tens of millions of dollars into ergonomics programs and buying adjustable desks, expensive chairs and "ergonomic" keyboards. They've performed workstation evaluations and taught employees how to reduce their risk of repetitive stress injuries.
But for much of that time they might have overlooked one thing: the mouse.
"The mouse is a very hazardous item. It should be called the Tasmanian devil rather than a mouse," says Dr. Richard Dean Smith, a Walnut Creek, Calif., physician and co-author of "Computer-Related Syndrome: The Prevention & Treatment of Computer-Related Injuries."
Smith is one of a growing number of researchers and ergonomics experts who believe that one of the greatest physical threats to office workers today comes from clicking on a mouse rather than pounding away on a keyboard.
With repetitive strain injuries afflicting more than 275,000 additional Americans every year, the incidence rate could hit epidemic proportions as more individuals increasingly use pointing devices to surf the Web for business and for pleasure.
"How often you mouse, how much at a time, and the manner and forces and grip type at which you approach mousing is definitely a concern," says Anthony Andre, an adjunct professor of ergonomics at San Jose State University. "It's definitely a danger zone, and it's not anything any product will enable us to do safely 10 hours a day."
Andre, who is one of the few researchers to have studied the ergonomics of Web browsing, has found that when many people visit cyberspace, they forget all the injury prevention techniques they've learned.
Frequently failing to take even short breaks, most Internet navigators keep their hand glued to a mouse for hours at a time. Posture worsens, the arm using the mouse becomes overextended and soon tendons and nerves in the neck, shoulder, back and wrist become sore and inflamed.
Because so many people log onto the Internet at home and at work, the potential for mouse-related injuries is that much greater, Andre believes.
Just how many repetitive stress injuries have been caused by the mouse isn't known. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks the number of work-related disorders that are associated with repeated trauma -- 276,600 in 1997 alone -- but does not differentiate between mouse injuries, keyboard injuries or assembly-line injuries. Nor does the agency have any gauge on what percentage of repetitive stress injuries goes unreported.
For more than a decade, the number of these job-related injuries has skyrocketed nationwide, jumping from 72,900 new cases in 1987 to 332,100 new cases in 1994. Starting in 1995, however, the nationwide incidence rate declined slightly for three years in a row.
Still, many experts are bracing for another upswing in repetitive stress injuries. Many workers might have already been injured but don't know it, Andre says.
Researchers at the Liberty Mutual Research Center in Hopkinton, Mass., attempted to determine how severe the problem was but had little luck.
"The computer mouse is present in virtually every office environment," they wrote in 1995. "However, there has been very little research on the musculoskeletal effects of computer mouse usage."
After analyzing their own injury claims from 1986 to 1993, they concluded that mouse-related afflictions appear "to be a growing problem."
Although many companies have spent countless dollars and countless hours setting up a worker's desk just so, they tend to focus on the computer monitor, keyboard, desk and chair, which do indeed merit attention to prevent injury, experts say. But then they consider themselves finished with their injury-prevention efforts, says Ira Janowitz, a Richmond, Calif.-based ergonomics consultant.
As a result, many workers end up having to position their track balls to the side of their computer and wind up straining their arms in the process.
"Someone who's severely injured can't shake hands, can't write, can't cook, can't pick up their children," says Smith, the physician. "Marriages break up. All sorts of social problems and economic problems follow these severe injuries. Their lives are almost ruined."