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Is computer work a pain in the neck?

By Kate Marshall and Tracy Freas

At work, at home and at school, the computer plays an increasingly important role in our lives. While computers and the Internet have made our lives easier and more enjoyable in many ways, their use can have harmful effects on our bodies unless careful consideration is given to how we operate these machines and how we design the workstations.

Thousands of people suffer each year from injuries that result, at least in part, from the use of computer workstations. These injuries are often referred to as musculoskeletal disorders, repetitive motion injuries or cumulative trauma disorders (CTDs). These are the illnesses or injuries to soft tissues (nerves, muscles, tendons, blood vessels, ligaments, etc.) resulting from repetitive use or overuse. These disorders occur most often in the upper extremities and lower back and include conditions such as carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis and lower back pain.

It may be the case that computers have made us too efficient. Previous generations of office equipment such as typewriters and word processors often allowed the user to work in a much more dynamic mode. For example, many typewriters required the user to hit the carriage return, change the paper, and retrieve correction fluid, all activities that enabled the user to back away from the workstation, providing a “micro-break.” Despite the importance of the computer in our daily lives, it is often the case that very little consideration is given to the workstation. It is common to adapt existing furniture and equipment to provide a functional – but imperfect – workstation. In addition, as we age we are more susceptible to developing a CTD. Therefore, it is very important that we do what we can to reduce our exposure to ergonomic risks.

So what can you do to reduce your risk for injury when working on a computer?


Neutral Posture

Assume the Position!

The illustration shows the “neutral position” that you should strive for when using a computer. Follow these tips to work more comfortably and safely.








Seating:

• Adjust the chair height so that your upper legs are parallel to the floor; this may require a foot rest.
• Adjust the armrest height to support the shoulders, but without causing the shoulders to lift.
• Adjust the chair back to fit the natural curve of your back. If it is not adjustable, consider using a lumbar support.
• If possible, adjust the seat pan depth such that you have 1 to 2 inches between the seat edge and the back of your calf.
Keyboard
and mouse:
• Sit directly in front of the keyboard and mouse to reduce twisting.
• Adjust the chair height and/or keyboard height/angle to allow hand, wrist and forearm to be in a straight line and maintain at least a 90 degree elbow angle.
• Retract keyboard feet to keep the wrist from bending.
• Reduce the distance between you and the keyboard/mouse to reduce slouching and reaching.
• Place mouse adjacent to and at the same level as the keyboard.
• Alternate the mouse between hands to distribute the workload.
• Palm supports should be close to the keyboard to support the heel of the hand, not the soft tissues of the wrist.
• Avoid resting wrists on sharp edges; if needed, use a palm support.



Kate Marshall '97, left, is a senior staff engineer and Tracy Aronson Freas '03 is a staff engineer in the Occupational Safety and Ergonomics Excellence program at RIT's Center for Integrated Manufacturing Studies. Marshall and Freas hold B.S. degrees in industrial and systems engineering from RIT and Marshall holds an M.S. in industrial engineering from the University of Buffalo.

Monitor:

• Sit directly in front of
the monitor to reduce neck twisting.
• Sit approximately at arms’ length away from the monitor to maintain a comfortable viewing distance.
• Glance away periodically to reduce eye fatigue.
• Stop and blink occasionally to maintain moisture and reduce eye fatigue.
• Minimize glare by closing blinds or positioning the monitor perpendicular to light sources.
• Adjust the monitor height and angle so that the top of the screen is at eye level. For bifocal or trifocal wearers, eye level should be slightly above the top of the monitor.

Phone:

• Refrain from cradling the phone between the shoulder and head and consider a shoulder rest or headset.
• Position the phone so that it is not necessary to reach across the body to answer it.
• Maintain a straight wrist when holding the receiver.
• Stand up and walk around while using the phone. This provides an opportunity to increase blood flow and help your body recover from computer work.

Extra tips:

• Position papers on a copyholder at the same height and distance as the monitor to reduce neck bending and eye fatigue.
• Position frequently used objects within reaching distance.
• Avoid using leg space for storage. Allow room for leg movement.
• Take mini-breaks. Occasionally take 30 seconds or so to move your arms, fingers and neck to give your body time to recover from the computer work.

Laptops:

With laptops the keyboard location in relation to the monitor is fixed. If you set the keyboard at the desirable height, the monitor would be too low. This results in leaning forward and bending your neck. In addition, laptops typically have smaller keyboards, which can increase wrist bending. We recommend the following:

For long term use:

• Use an external keyboard and mouse or docking station to reduce wrist deviations and allow the monitor and keyboard/mouse to be placed at different heights.
• Raise the laptop monitor to the seated eye height (you can use phone books) to view the top of the screen with a slight downward glance.
• Remember to take additional mini-breaks.
• Use proper bags/cases for transporting, including carry bags with wheels, bags with padded straps and backpack-style bags. Leave behind devices not needed that can add weight such as manuals, disk drives, etc.

Over the last eight years, the Center for Integrated Manufacturing Studies Occupational Safety and Ergonomics Excellence Program has provided ergonomics and health and safety training and projects for a variety of industries including manufacturing, food processing, foundries, healthcare, and assembly. In the last year, more than 1,600 people were trained through these programs. For more information on OSEE programs or to schedule an ergonomics evaluation, please contact Kate Marshall at kkmasp@rit.edu.

Members of the RIT community share expertise on a variety of
subjects in FYI.