Computer Safety And Ergonomics

Circa 1995

If you are an owner or a manager of a company with people spending hours every day at a computer-and how many businesses don’t fit that description today? then you have an urgent issue to face: Ergonomics.

The potential for disabling cumulative trauma injury from computer use or, more accurately, improper computer use, is very real. It has already cost businesses some of their most valued employees, not to mention real dollars. People and businesses are feeling the pain.

Computers are not inherently. dangerous, they just have to be used correctly. A car is dangerous if you haven’t learned to drive. The same is true for computing, and so far we have just been jumping into the driver’s seat without learning some of the basics.

Unfortunately, most of what management hears about ergonomics is regulation, increased insurance premiums, expensive furniture and accessories. This whole issue of computer safety sounds like nothing more than a frontal attack on your bottom line. In the process. you may not be hearing the part that counts.

Here is why computing is different from traditional office work. There is less cause to move our bodies because the computer screen and keyboard lock us into limited ranges of posture. The body needs movement. It is part of the way our circulatory system works, for one thing.

Compared to the typewriter, we don’t push the carriage return over. change the paper, or get up and walk to the file cabinet when we use a computer. Those small breaks allowed our muscles to get fresh blood and oxygen but, thanks to word wrapping, page breaks, and hard drives, there is much less rea son to stop. so the tissues are deprived of necessary circulation. The body can’t keep up with extreme use.

Repetitive movement of the fingers at keyboard and mouse, and rubbing tendons together in the wrist, causes inflammation and sur face injury. In the carpal tunnel, a tight space in the wrist, this inflammation can create pressure on the median nerve, a crucial message carrier for the hand.

Muscles fatigue when they don’t get rest, even at very low levels of exertion. What matters is how long a contraction is held. Computer users tend to keep the shoulders raised, the head in a fixed position, or lean and slump so that trunk muscles must maintain our balance. At the least these constant contractions fatigue the tissues and makes us sore (almost everyone gets tight shoulders and a stiff neck-truly an epidemic). At worst it causes muscles to tighten, pull harder on ten dons and press on nerves, leading to serious injury.

These may seem like small effects, but when they are the pat tern of what a worker does for hours every day, gradually these strains add up. It is a slow process, so the fact that symptoms may not exist now may not mean there is no problem. Symptoms may be on the verge of appearing. For some it takes weeks, for others a year or more. It depends on the individual, his job, and his physical setting.

Stress compounds this. The muscles tense, digestion is less efficient robbing us of nutrients in the blood, and hormones are released that affect the immune system. Tissues under the demand of constant stress are less able to maintain their integrity.

The quality of the relationship between worker and manager turns out to have a big influence on the potential for cumulative trauma injury. Ergonomics researchers doing a study at a major urban newspaper found that with good ergonomics but a poor supervisory relationship, symptoms were more severe In other words, a poor supervisory relationship canceled the beneficial qualities of an ergonomically correct workstation.

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Early Reporting

The early symptoms are often intermittent and not severe. That is exactly the when problems can be controlled, and there is always a cause. Usually it can be corrected. Pain is information trying to tell you that something is wrong. Ignoring pain is exactly how people get into deep trouble with cumulative trauma injuries, so it is crucial to encourage early reporting. Many people have thought that a few days rest and a couple of aspirin would do the trick when they experienced early symptoms, only to find that once the symptoms were “serious enough” they were very difficult to treat.

There are probably people in your organization who are not speaking up, or are not aware of the meaning of what they are feeling. Some fear they will be seen as a wimp, accused of trying to avoid their share of the work. There are too many stories of unsupportive managers who failed to recognize the problem, and so allowed it to multiply. Surely this is not good for a business.

Many agree that this is a Type A disease. It happens to the obsessive type who won’t stop working short of an earthquake! It takes a lot of pain to get their attention, much less get them to explore the cause. Another reason is your awareness of the problem may be incomplete

“Early reporting!” you exclaim with horror. “Increase my claims?” Unfortunately, many Workers Compensation carriers do relate premiums to volume of claims, but they also account for severity. In the long run you are much better off with more smaller claims than a few big ones. Some carriers will not penalize you for a claim that is closed early with minimal outlay on their part.

And they do get big. The average claim is said to be around $35,000. It is not unusual for a car rier to pay out up to $100,000, and for the employer to lose a valued worker in the process. The hardest workers are in fact the ones who are most at risk. Early reporting pays off in the long run.

The issues of regulation and insurance become moot when you make your business “ergonomically correct.” It doesn’t cost as much as you may think, and certainly less than the long-term cost of disability.

So what do you do?

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Many workers are not sufficiently trained at their computer, or are placed over their heads with software which is too complex for them. The result is stress as people struggle trying to find a certain command or being unable to troubleshoot computer problems.

They also waste hand movement by not taking advantage of automated features in a program, such as style sheets or macros. It is very common for people to do things the long way, wasting time and motion of the hands, Sufficient computer training reduces their risk from stress and overuse, and clearly increases efficiency.

They also need training on their ergonomic furniture. Adjustable chairs, desks, and various accessories such as monitor arms and wrist rests are of no value if they are not used correctly. Most people don’t know how or why to adjust their chairs. Too many companies install these products but fail to benefit, just from lack of training.

Even the best and properly adjusted ergonomic furniture is not the whole answer. People must know how to work safely and how to take care of themselves. Doing computer-intensive work is like being an athlete. They need to know. how to use their bodies without injuring them; like controlling impact at the keyboard, resting the eyes at each chance, breathing fully, and more. Athletes also takes care of their bodies, knowing that good health makes them resilient against injury. Yes, a person needs to be in shape to handle regular computer work. Training is the key.


Ergonomics is really about comfort. When a person can be relaxed at his work, he is not fatigued by all of the unnecessary muscular effort discussed above. The location of the keyboard and monitor, and the correct chair, properly adjusted, make all the difference in the world. When it comes to working at a computer hour at a time every day, comfort is not a luxury. It is a necessity.

So far, we have simply dropped our computers on the desks we had. Generally, these surfaces are too high for a keyboard, forcing the shoulders up, the hard edge pressing against wrist and forearm, holding the typing posture for extended periods of time. Eventually it becomes very uncomfortable. People do their best to adapt by extending their arms forward to type, or balancing the keyboard on their laps, neither of which solves the problem.

Adjustable chairs are now the norm, but since we come in so many shapes and sizes, one chair design will not accommodate an entire company. A shorter person will be kept from sitting against the back because the seat pan is too deep, for instance. The chair is the starting point for ergonomics, the key to comfort. The idea of the $1.000 chair is a myth. They certainly exist. but good chairs can be had for less than half that amount, particularly when you purchase in volume.

Lighting is often too bright, causing glare and reflections on the screen, straining the eyes from insufficient contrast. Lighting has as much to do with posture, as people lean in and crane the chin to see the screen.

Proper control of overhead lights, blinds and windows, monitor adjustments and cleanliness have a major impact on comfort.

Ergonomics is a very understandable, common-sense topic. The surface has only been scratched in this article. Once you experience the difference as these principles are applied, you will wonder how you ever endured working with so much wasted effort. Good ergonomics means saving your energy, thinking better, being open to more creative ideas and not being held down by soreness and fatigue. It means better work.

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Time Management

Time management is strongly tied to safety in a computer-intensive office, with effects on both stress levels and degree of body use. Procrastination is highly stressful, as are imposing deadlines, and poorly managed time often means more mistakes, so extra work to do things over.

How are your work systems? How common is it for deadlines to suddenly pile up? Does everyone generally have a sense of where they are in the work process and a grasp of how much is left to be done? Are their roles well defined? Do they have the opportunity to offer input into the process, to con tribute to its continuing refinement?

Sometimes mistakes are made because the system isn’t clear or information falls through holes. Someone may have to redo a task simply because a piece of information wasn’t available. People generally don’t mind working hard on a tight deadline in an efficient system. It is when the crunch seems to be due to inefficiency that people get stressed and resentful-and you start paying overtime!

Job Design

Since the major cause of injury is uninterrupted computer work, your goal should be to break up lengthy computer sessions. A study from the University of Massachu setts says, “The most consistent evidence for work-related injury involved the intensity of cumulative exposure to keyboard use.” This is partly a matter of individual time. management, but is an issue of the design of the job itself. Obviously this gets difficult with jobs like programming or data entry, but these are very high risk jobs.

Perform a task analysis to get a sense of what portion of the work day is spent doing each task and then spread them out more evenly, reducing the concentration of repetitive tasks.

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Micro-breaks are the practice of stopping briefly several times an hour to simply breathe, rest the eyes, stand up, and so on. Just for a few seconds. This allows the body to replenish itself and maintain a more relaxed state and delays the fatigue point. These breaks are an important and highly recommended element of any prevention strategy. Workers need to know they are welcome to practice this habit.

But you are probably concerned about the effect on productivity of something like this… “Encourage breaks!?”

Research has shown that small micro-breaks in fact increase productivity. One study concluded that “Introducing micro-breaks actually speeds up the work, leading to fewer spontaneous and disguised pauses.” Spontaneous pauses are those we take simply because we feel fatigue, and disguised pauses are those times we choose a simpler task that requires less effort and thought. In short, micro-breaks help a worker stay focused on the task at hand, and therefore increase efficiency. It preserves his energy, and it lets the body keep up with the physical strains of computing.

Space Planning

While the individual workstation certainly has to be the prime focus, there are a few points to have in mind for the overall office layout.

People need the chance to rest their eyes by looking to a distance of 25 feet or more, yet often the office plan doesn’t allow someone to look down the hallway much less out a window,

If the window is directly behind or at an angle to the computer screen then the design has, in effect, forced the added cost of glare screens on the company. Relationships to windows are the key issue for eyestrain, the most commonly reported computer user discomfort.

Some people benefit from having a printer at their desk, but this also has the effect of keeping them. in the same place even longer. Walking to a printer is a good way to build in that needed body movement into the workplace design.

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High Risk Conditions

There are times when the risk of cumulative trauma is higher than normal and worthy of particular attention.

Studies show that job work styles are established within the first two weeks of taking a new job, so you should watch a new employee with extra care and support his establishing safe patterns. This is the best point at which to provide ergonomic training.

The installing of new equipment or technology is a high stress time. We have a lot to learn at those times, and it takes awhile to reach a new comfort level. And obviously the inevitable deadline crunch demands extra care for safety.

Watching for Symptoms

Watch for these signs of the early appearance of symptoms:

  • Shaking out the hands
  • Rubbing the fingers, wrists, or elbows
  • Bottles of aspirin or other pain killers on the desk
  • Uncharacteristic changes in productivity or quality of work.

This last point is very important. When a person becomes burdened by the pain and the fear of chronic pain, it inevitably affects his attitude. He may begin to make mis takes or become difficult to work with. To become critical or conclude he has “lost his touch” only isolates him. You miss what could be an addressable problem, and a chance to help him reattain the quality of work and relationship he had before the injury.

The key word is “persistence.” A sore wrist may not be a problem, but if it persists over days, or starts waking the person up at night, then it is time to determine the cause. If someone isn’t speaking up. his supervisor may be able to ask if there is a problem and solve it before it becomes severe.

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Ergonomics Programs Pay

Training in ergonomic principles and safe work habits benefits everyone, is the most basic investment you can make, and is the best starting point for a proactive ergonomic program. There are a number of good books or pamphlets available, as well as an increasing number of consultancies and seminars.

For those workers who are very focused on computing or other. cumulative work, an individual work station consultation is invaluable. A competent consultant can help identify subtle but important issues of work station layout, adjustment, and individual needs and habits.

Such a program can be scaled to your company’s needs and resources. The return on your investment will pay off in the reassurance of your staff, a more productive workplace. and protection from the severe and unnecessary costs of chronic pain and disability.

A first generation of computer users has discovered that these hazards are real. As an owner/manager, you have the power to establish your company’s right relationship to computing. It is time to take the les son, to create a safe environment, and to take full advantage of the benefits that new technologies have to offer.

Gary Karp (gk***@si****.com) is an ergonomics consultant and founder of Onsight Technology Education Services in San Francisco.

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