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Ergonomics in the workplace and the homeplace

By onyxruby in Technology
Sun Feb 11, 2001 at 05:47:19 PM EST
Tags: Hardware (all tags)

Ergonomics in the workplace and the homeplace. I was reading an article over at USAToday.com and wondering how this would affect me in the future. I already know two people that have had ergonomic problems and had to start to use Logitech trackballs. What steps do people take to stem off repetitive-stress injury or carpal tunnel syndrome?

I know that OSHA (Occupation Safety & Health Administration for worker safety in the US) tried bringing out ergonomic standards for the workplace last year. Unfortunately I believe that was shot down by businesses concerned about the cost of those standards to the bottom line. They tried claiming that their was no scientific evidence to support such claims. Last I heard OSHA was backing down and offering watered down optional guidelines. I had trouble finding good links or current material concerning this point, and might well be wrong. Does anybody know the latest on this to comment on? Unfortunately OSHA seems more concerned about big business financial welfare than office employee physical welfare.

If your workplace won't take ergonomic standards seriously, what can you do? I have personally bought an extra Logitech Wheelman for use wherever I work. Is this reasonable that I should do such a thing? Typically when I have discussed ergonomics with employers, most think I must be some kind of crazed nutzoid that wants to make them spend extra money out of their budget. Sometimes employers oblige; sometimes not.

Let me compare the problem with computer professionals to that of say a factory worker. A factory worker might do the exact same job for one factory for years on end. If they have a problem, it can be easily traced that the construction of 23,842 widgets over 7 years caused certain things to happen to their body. Now take your typical computer professionals. They are statistically most likely contractors, and typically spend maybe 2 years at a company before they move to another contract. How can you tell who did the damage? Was it the 7 years experience before the contract, or the 6 months experience on the contract that did the damage? Most likely both, and this makes any kind of workman's compensation claim difficult to prove. Add to this that many computer professionals have years to a decade or more of experience with computers before they are ever paid to touch a computer, and the problem becomes worse. Ultimately, it our own lives and careers, and we have to be the top watchdog for ourselves.

The other thought is what kind of damages can occur? In particular I am thinking of sight. Can years of staring at an old poor-quality monitor damage your eyes? When it came time to replace my old monitor at home I spent the money to get a high quality monitor. This has reduced eye strain and fatigue when using the computer. For personal use, I think the $500 cost was well worth every penny. Could something like that ever be justified at a workplace though? Even chairs are becoming much better at being ergonomic. Many employers are now conscious of this in their purchasing decisions. Should standards for ergonomics become law to protect office workers?


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Ergonomic standards
o Should be optional 10%
o Should be encouraged 44%
o Are a bunch of new-age hippie crap 4%
o Should be enforced by law (OSHA) 32%
o Should be the responsibility of each employee 8%

Votes: 49
Results | Other Polls

Related Links
o article
o USAToday.c om
o Logitech
o Also by onyxruby

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Ergonomics in the workplace and the homeplace | 31 comments (26 topical, 5 editorial, 0 hidden)
Long overdue (3.50 / 4) (#1)
by rinkjustice on Sun Feb 11, 2001 at 01:30:59 PM EST

I think a story like this is long overdue. I have tendonitis myself and even typing can be painful at times. A higher priority must be put on awareness and prevention, because this is a growing problem worldwide.
My .02

Secrets of getting stronger, faster, leaner - ZerotoSuperhero

Is there really a problem? (4.00 / 5) (#3)
by davros on Sun Feb 11, 2001 at 02:27:47 PM EST

In my experience as a software engineer, my employers have been more than willing to make reasonable accomodations. Even several hundred dollars is a piddling amount compared to the possible lost time and expenses associated with a work-related injury, and only the most penny-wise/pound-foolish organizations would fail to realize that. Usually there is a designated person with responsibity for ergonomics issues.

In my opinion, the main obstacle in the way of more ergonomic workplaces lies not with the employers but with the individual employees like myself who are often too busy to "waste" time consulting with the company ergonomics expert, especially since we don't have any problems now.

Employers may be digging their own hole. (3.50 / 4) (#4)
by ism on Sun Feb 11, 2001 at 02:29:29 PM EST

Human factors engineering/ergonomics is starting to get widespread notice. It started mostly in the industrial engineering domain but has quickly crossed over to computers. Everything from chair height to the phosphors in the CRT matters. I'm not familiar with the proposed OSHA guidelines, but there is sufficient evidence for many ergonomic factors' impact on human well-being. If employers ignore this, are they opening themselves up to future lawsuits?

How are things like CTS handled in the workplace around the world? Is it covered under worker's comp where you are (if you have worker's comp, I think that might be particular to the U.S.), or does that open the employer to a lawsuit? CTS is a definite human factors issue, and how that is handled could be a precedent for other issues.

I would suggest seeking out a professional society such as the HFES which may help you make employers realise how important this is.

Think of the lawsuits (4.00 / 5) (#6)
by leviathan on Sun Feb 11, 2001 at 03:27:55 PM EST

It's scary. I'd have thought such a litigious nation as the USA would have had this in place already. Across the EU there is legislation on preventing RSI. Most hackers I know completely ignore this sort of thing despite the posters put up around the office (all chairs must be adjustable, for example) and have problems by the time they're thirty. Hopefully as new coders come in who've grown up with these recommendations they won't suffer the same (I'm beginning to appreciate the advantages, especially the one about taking breaks!)

Employers have to provide adequate facilities to their employees or they can sue later on, rather in the way one of my old works had to supply free steel toe-capped shoes (so that when you failed to wear the ugly things and got your foot fallen upon and toes lopped off, you couldn't sue).

Some of the more forward thinking EU states require that employees can stand up to work if they want to, so many provide desks on hydraulic supports which can go up and down as you feel like it. More tech to the techie!

I wish everyone was peaceful. Then I could take over the planet with a butter knife.
- Dogbert

It goes further ... (none / 0) (#16)
by drhyde on Mon Feb 12, 2001 at 06:01:18 AM EST

Certainly in the UK (and, I believe, in the rest of the EU cos I would hardly expect our foul UK govts to do anything for the workers unless they were forced to) employers are *required* to allow breaks from the screen, and to provide free sight checkups for anyone whose job involves extensive computer use. If your employer doesn't pay any attention to this, then I suggest you talk to your union. You are unionised, right?

[ Parent ]
My employer pays attention to this (none / 0) (#26)
by leviathan on Tue Feb 13, 2001 at 07:52:14 AM EST

My chair has so many levers and controls that I spent a week learning it. My desk curves round me so that everything is in easy reach. It's covered with various bits of covered foam (wrist rests). I spend half my day in the kitchen, drinking free coffee (not all in one go!). My employer definitely pays attention to all this stuff; it pays them not only in lack of lawsuits, but in greater productivity.

The only thing I should get changed is my right-handed mouse for a left-handed one, but that's my fault for not raising it with anyone yet. /me slaps self

I wish everyone was peaceful. Then I could take over the planet with a butter knife.
- Dogbert
[ Parent ]

My employer is good about this. (4.00 / 5) (#7)
by Seumas on Sun Feb 11, 2001 at 03:33:30 PM EST

Of all the states, I'm pretty sure California is probably the most stringent about such things. When I was working on-campus at our company, they were very good about such things as comfort and ergonomics. Most of us never took advantage of it, though.

For example, we used to work in offices in Mountain View, but then a massive new campus was constructed in Santa Clara. When it was finished, we moved in and within about a month, they were doing "ergo-sweeps", where ergonimic professionals that our company has on staff full time, went from office to office and asked you if there was anything that you would like changed. Desk height, uncomfortable chair, crappy keyboard or mouse, different lighting, foot stools under the desks -- pretty much whatever you wanted, I guess.

My habits are such that I wouldn't thrive under "ergonomically sound" conditions though. Now that I telecommute, I work at a series of fold-out buffet-tables (the long brown tables you see everywhere for about $40). I have a cheap 'office' chair that I spent about a hundred bucks on that is going to pieces as we speak. I have lots of lighting, but prefer to work in the dark -- or close to it. Sometimes I prefer to lay on the carpet, on my stomache, and type at the crappy keyboard on my laptop and use the inhumane mouse-pad tracker on it. So not everything that is 'ergonomic' is actually comfortable. But I've worked at a place before this one that absolutely sucked and as far as they could care, you could sit on a stack of telephone books punching the keys with your nose on a six inch monitor.

I do believe that OSHA standards are a good idea, but wholly useless if they are not actually enforced. Otherwise only companies like mine, who are concerned with the comfort of employees (hell, we have a fitness center and sauna and stuff on campus too, and massage therapist and stuff) will ever bother.
I just read K5 for the articles.

Monitors. (2.66 / 3) (#8)
by Seumas on Sun Feb 11, 2001 at 03:35:46 PM EST

Another cool thing about my company is that, while my last job gave everyone 14" monitors, high quality 21" monitors are standard here. I have one for my Ultra10 box and one for my desktop box. Pretty spendy items, I suppose. But damn, they certainly make a difference.
I just read K5 for the articles.
Computer Professionals vs. Factory Workers (3.00 / 3) (#9)
by davros on Sun Feb 11, 2001 at 04:26:14 PM EST

While I'm 100% in favor of paying attention to ergonomic issues, let me play devil's advocate and point out one distinction: most if not all computer professionals earn their living based on their mental capabilities, not their ability to type. If a factory worker (or anyone who makes a living wholly or partly based on physical labor) has a disability, he'll likely be unable to continue working. In contrast, even if I had to use some kind of alternative computer input device, I'd still be able to write programs. (One might argue that the quality of my programming could improve because I'd be more tempted to think about a problem instead of madly typing/hacking away at it.)

That might explain why we (the employees, not the employers) don't take this matter as seriously as perhaps we should.

Try this! (none / 0) (#17)
by www.sorehands.com on Mon Feb 12, 2001 at 06:30:35 AM EST

Try having a secretary run the keyboard for you while you debug C code. Or try voice recognition when doing editing of code.

They both work fine when dictating text, but when it comes to running a debugger -- FORGET IT!

Mattel, SLAPP terrorists intent on destroying free speech.
[ Parent ]

The voice of experience here. (4.71 / 7) (#10)
by www.sorehands.com on Sun Feb 11, 2001 at 04:46:37 PM EST

I came down with tendinitis at work and had to deal with all this crap. All the details are at my website

First, WC (workers comp) is a joke. Even though I was a software engineer, their own doctor said it was 66% from work, and that I had a non-disclosure that said everything I did belonged to them - they denied the claim saying it was not soley work related. They claimed it was caused by my computer usage at home, not work related. It took about 1.5 years to get a lump sum settlement. Even if I didn't fight to get WC, the maximum weekly benefit is about $500/week plus medicals.

I was fired when I took off time for treatment. Up that point, I went to local doctors for therapy, anti-imflamatory drugs, and they all said the said, "take time off of work and get accupuncture." When I did, I was fired. I took three years to win a lawsuit for violating the Mass. version of the ADA, FMLA, and wrongful termination charges.

I still have tendinitis, but I can work. I have to be careful about too much keyboarding and my ergonomics.

The main point is to prevent it, not treat it. If you experience symptoms, don't wait to take care of it. The OSHA regs actually inform employers of the seriousness as opposed to the response, "stop playing with yourself."

Mattel, SLAPP terrorists intent on destroying free speech.

Repetitive Stress Injury: the Whine du Jour (3.20 / 5) (#11)
by the Epopt on Sun Feb 11, 2001 at 05:00:39 PM EST

Why is it that keyboard workers in only the past ten years or so are suffering from this RSI thing? Is it because extensive keyboard work is a new thing, and never before have companies employed pools of people whose job it was to type all day long?

Note: the preceding sentence made use of the rhetorical technique of sarcasm. Those suffering from Acquired Humor Deficiency Syndrome or are Knowledge of History Challenged are requested to substitute the following sentences instead:

Extensive keyboard work is not a new thing. For many decades before the widespread use of computers, companies employed pools of typists whose job it was to type all day -- on unpowered keyboards, which they had to strike much harder than we are allowed to strike our flimsy plastic clackers.
Repetitive stress injuries are caused by bad habits. Even the best equipment, used the wrong way, won't prevent them. Learn to sit up straight and to hold your wrists straight, and you won't suffer them.
Most people who need to be shot need to be shot soon and a lot.
Very few people need to be shot later or just a little.

Forced Breaks (4.50 / 6) (#12)
by davros on Sun Feb 11, 2001 at 05:30:24 PM EST

The manual keyboards in use for many decades had a couple of unintended features that forced users to give their wrists a periodic break. You had to hit the carriage return at the end of each line. (And of course I mean a real physical lever, not just another key.) And you had to feed a new sheet of paper every so often.

[ Parent ]
An Excellent Point (4.50 / 2) (#18)
by the Epopt on Mon Feb 12, 2001 at 10:14:58 AM EST

In addition to your excellent point (which I hadn't specifically thought of), beating on an Underwood No. 5 was work and anyone having to do so all day missed no chance to take any break she could get, however short.

I still believe that the main reason they RSI wasn't epidemic is that the girls in the typing pool had been taught to type properly. The geeks in the programmer/analyst pool -- at least those where I work -- have not been.

By show of electrons: how many of you have been explicitly taught to use a keyboard -- how to hold your wrists properly, how to use your little fingers properly, which thumb to use on the space bar, &c.?

Most people who need to be shot need to be shot soon and a lot.
Very few people need to be shot later or just a little.

[ Parent ]
Old news: Railroad telegraphers ... (4.00 / 3) (#13)
by Ross Patterson on Sun Feb 11, 2001 at 10:25:53 PM EST

... used to complain of what the called a "glass arm". It developed over time, and once it set in they weren't able to pound the telegraph key well enough to work any more. RSI is nothing new, what's new is that it happens to white-collar types. Before computers, it was largely a secretary's syndrome, and everyone knew those babes were asking for it ;-)

[ Parent ]
Any specific hardware/practices you suggest? (5.00 / 1) (#14)
by pistols on Sun Feb 11, 2001 at 10:36:54 PM EST

I am a (fairly young) programmer and am wishing to avoid physical deterioration by following ergonomic practices. Does anyone have any suggestions on specific hardware to use? Right now I've got a few likes/dislikes:
  • I've got a fairly large lcd screen that I vastly prefer over *any* crt I've used before.
  • I use a Logitech trackball, but I'm not sure if this is any improvement over a standard mouse.
  • My favorite, a Kinesis keyboard. It has two concave typing surfaces and thumb keys. The keys are programmable and you can get it in dvorak. My only complaint is that function keys (and escape) are too small for effective use.
  • I prefer a chair that supports my lower back, but doesn't extend up beyond that... This allows me to lean faaaarrrr back without falling over ;)
  • finally, I like to place the keyboard on my lap: it just puts my hands in the least awkward position
Anyone have any more suggestions/likes/dislikes?

keyboard on lap vs drawer (none / 0) (#23)
by scruffyMark on Mon Feb 12, 2001 at 07:14:39 PM EST

I just recently got a Kinesis keyboard as well (recently enough that I'm not quite back up to my original typing speed, but long enough ago that I'm now even worse with a standard keyboard)

I often set my keyboard in my lap as well, especially at school where the tables are way too high. However, this is not a very good thing if you use your mouse a great deal, particularly if you switch back and forth between KB and mouse often. Then you are making a long reach to the table where the mouse is, which in the long run is not too good for your shoulder.

If you use the mouse a lot, it might be worth it to get a (possibly adjustable) keyboard tray so that you can keep the keyboard low down, and also not need to reach far for the mouse.

[ Parent ]

If it works for you.... (none / 0) (#27)
by mckwant on Tue Feb 13, 2001 at 12:41:23 PM EST

then it works for you. End of problem.

a couple of pieces of advice I'd give you are:

1) Once something happens (your wrists start hurting, eye strain, whatever), DO SOMETHING. "Living with" the problem, or "playing with pain" are just stupid, and will only serve to aggravate the problem. Fix the problem, and if the fix doesn't work, fix it again.

2) Stay in some sort of reasonable physical shape. I was "carpalled" for a while, but started getting in shape, and the problem went away. Hardly anybody who programs for a living will be a triathlete, but there's a long way between that and the shape of many programmers.


[ Parent ]
Hurray for Kinesis (none / 0) (#29)
by zephiros on Wed Feb 14, 2001 at 02:14:39 AM EST

For pretty much the past twelve years, I've spent the majority of my day typing on some sort of console. I never really had any trouble (aside from normal keyboarding fatigue) until last year, when I start doing the travelling consultant thing. After about six months of coding on a laptop keyboard, I could barely manage five consecutive minutes of typing. Email became a chore, and IRC was totally out of the question.

I picked up a Kinesis Essential, and, after about two weeks, was back to normal duration. It took me another month or so to get back up to a IRC-capable typing speed (~50wpm, still 5 under my old rate).

Even so, I'd still recommend the Kinesis to anyone who types as a regular part of their job/lifestyle. I've become very attached to the thumb keys, and suspect that my increased editing speed probably makes up for the loss in straight typing speed.
Kuro5hin is full of mostly freaks and hostile lunatics - KTB
[ Parent ]

Happiness (3.00 / 1) (#15)
by durian on Mon Feb 12, 2001 at 04:27:35 AM EST

My employer is very good. I have a hernia and I've got both a desk which can be moved up so I can stand, and a special chair (Stokke, shameless plug here: http://www.stokke.com/rot/html/h_duo.html).

I live/work in Sweden for a small company. My girlfriend is less lucky, she has neck and arm problems, but because she does not have a fixed contract the company won't do anything for her (even though she has been working at the same company for years)...


Maybe it's just me, but... (4.00 / 1) (#19)
by jabber on Mon Feb 12, 2001 at 10:16:47 AM EST

I've not seen much of a problem with RSI or ergonomics in my workplace.

I work in a pretty run of the mill office space. It's not a makeshift data-center in the corner of a manufacturing facility, and it's not one of these new age (Generation d) hives with slides, firemen poles and parking places for scooters. Just a cube farm with desks for everyone.

I do software engineering, code maintenance, DB design, UI development, documentation... Again, the group I work in is too small to be completely specialized, so there's a variety of work for everyone.

When I came into the group, I was assigned a PC with a 15" monitor. I said I would have liked a bigger one, to see more real-estate and to not strain my eyes at too high a res for the screen. I was led to a storage room and given my choice of monitor - a 17" Trinitron is much better than a 21" monster.

When doing an extended run with the development of a pretty busy GUI, with lots and lots of on-screen controls that had to look 'just so', I noticed my wrist start to go a little numb. Too much mousing. I mentioned this to my immediate upper, and was given a new mouse-pad, with a gel wrist rest, the next day.

The new pad helped a little but didn't really solve the problem. After a few days, I went to Staples at lunch time, bought a Logitech Mouseman, and I've not had a problem since. My mousing is a little slower, because the new device just can't be thrown around the same as a mouse, but I can be on it much longer without strain. Management offered to refund my $29.95, but I declined. I have no problem taking some responsibility for my own comfort.

A few months ago my work group was issued cumfy new chairs (probably in lieu of a bonus. :) )

Ergonomics are something that is easily blown out of proportion. There are plenty of people who think that the company should provide everything from Cinema displays to foot massages, just because you show up for work. There are also plenty of people who bust their hump carrying monitors all day, without so much as a thought that they should get a cart.

Government regulation is a good thing when it comes to forcing compliance with basic safety and well-being needs of people who perform routine and extended tasks within their job description. There is a certain level of lighting which is necessary. There is a certain amount of space a person needs to work. Crouching in front of a 12" amber screen which flickers at 55Hz, for 10 hours a day, is certainly not 'good working conditions'.

But, in response to 'sore-wrists', it is just a job. If it hurts you that much, you are free to quit. Stubbornly working yourself into a medical condition and then antagonising your employer with the fact is nothing short of stupid. I'm sure if you'd addressed the issue before it became a problem, your employer would have been much more likely to work with you. FWIW, I'm glad you won your case, but you should have avoided the problem altogether.

[TINK5C] |"Is K5 my kapusta intellectual teddy bear?"| "Yes"

Alas... (none / 0) (#24)
by kagaku_ninja on Mon Feb 12, 2001 at 08:35:31 PM EST

Not all employers are so thoughtful. In my previous job, I developed mild tendonitis, as well as some severe back problems. The only way I was able to get anything done to change the ergonomics of my cube was after entering therapy. Therapy included getting a professional to examine my work area and make recommendations. Even then, there was some foot-dragging on the part of the facilities manager.

Yes, I did complain, and very little was done. I had to supply my own trackball and "ergonomic" keyboard. When we moved to new offices, the modular cube furniture was replaced with fixed-height desks. It took about a year before I could get an adjustable keyboard tray. I had to make a second workers-comp claim before this was done.

[ Parent ]
A good experience (none / 0) (#20)
by wiredog on Mon Feb 12, 2001 at 11:08:37 AM EST

At my previous employer a worker developed neck problems from looking at a screen that was mounted about 7' (2 meters) up in a wall. By the time she came back from her medically required time off (2 weeks) all the monitors were down at about 1 meter (3'). No lawsuits required, no discussion over whether this was required. Worked developed RSI, workstations reconfigured.

The idea of a global village is wrong, it's more like a gazillion pub bars.

It's up to BOTH of you. (3.00 / 1) (#22)
by rabbit on Mon Feb 12, 2001 at 06:35:56 PM EST

While I'll agree that it should be up to an employer to make sure that the overall work environment isn't dangerous, it really is up to the worker to decide on ergonomics.

Most offices fall somewhere in the middle, from an ergonomic standpoint. There are FAR too many different body types out there for one single desk/chair/monitor/keyboard combination to suit everyone.

For example, I share an office with two other guys, and the three of us are all shaped rather differently. At my own desk, I have no problems. Zero. Same with cow-orkers. They like their setup. If I sit at one of their desks for more than 10 minutes, my wrists *both* starting hurting like crazy, and neither of them can stand my desk. So who's right? Me or them? Which "standard" should an office employ? Neither. They need to, from an economic standpoint, just stick somewhere in the middle, and then deal with problems on a case by case basis. But if you just whinge about it, instead of bringing a genuine problem to the attention of your boss, then he can do nothing about helping you.

One of the biggest problems I see is that people just don't pay attention to their own bodies. How can you simply *not be aware* of the fact that you're in pain? The minute you start getting tired or start feeling strained is the minute you stop doing whatever it is that you're doing, and find a new way to do it. Don't wait until your wrist is so fscked up that you can't even type, or hold a cup of coffee.

It is up to the employer to provide reasonable and safe tools for you do your job, and I've found that most are willing to work with you if you bring something up. A different chair, a different monitor, squishy mouse pads, whatever. But demanding a 21' trinitron or one of those rediculous Herman Miller Aeron chairs doesn't exactly fall in the reasonable category for most people or most jobs.

And if all else fails...get a new job. Take some responsibility for your own well being.


-- I have desires that are not in accord with the status quo.
This is not true. (4.00 / 1) (#28)
by tchaika on Tue Feb 13, 2001 at 04:17:16 PM EST

It is not correct that ergonomics should be standardised. The office equipment must be adjusted to suit each individual if they are having a problem. If it cannot be done the employer is not taking proper care of their employees. While this may be very common, this does not excuse it.

Most of the people who read this board probably make within range of $100,000 or more per year, esp. if they work in a large city. To expect your employer to drop 2-3% of your yearly salary on a decent chair, desk and monitor is not too much to ask.

[ Parent ]
Some Companies are great at this. (none / 0) (#31)
by schmoli on Thu Feb 15, 2001 at 04:02:52 PM EST

I am a new (2.5 months) software engineer working for a 3-year old software company in the Pacific Northwest, and this discussion has made me really thankful that my employer offers so many ergonomic advantages. Everyone in my company has Herman Miller Aerons, developers have 21" trinitrons, ergo keyboards if we want, foot rests, everything.... they'll even take the flourescent bulbs out from above our cubes if we don't want them and give us desk lamps... We have games to get us out of our chairs and massage therapists visit once a week.

Just thought I'd let people know there are some great companies out there..

- @SH*.com

[ Parent ]

Ergonomics in the workplace and the homeplace | 31 comments (26 topical, 5 editorial, 0 hidden)
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