Computers have revolutionized our lives. How many hours a day do you average sitting in front of one? We are willing to wager it is more than a few for most us. Especially since even after a full day of work, it is usual to check email, Facebook, blogs, and Twitter, and then maybe do some Internet research or shopping after we get home. There always seems to be a reason to turn on the computer and start working away, and before you realize it, a couple of hours or more have gone by.
Working in today’s research laboratory is no different. In fact, there is a good chance you spend many hours at a computer workstation entering data and researching databases. As we continue to become bound to our keyboard, mouse and monitor, chances of developing pain in the neck, wrists, back and shoulders grow with each passing minute, hour and day. By setting up your computer workstation optimally and paying attention to a few key elements of positioning and alignment, you can greatly reduce the chance of an ergonomic injury such as carpal tunnel syndrome or a repetitive stress injury. Let’s see if we can improve your computer workstation setup by reviewing the simple principles of proper ergonomics.
The science of strain and stress prevention
Ergonomics is simply the study of how humans interact with their environment. Used mostly in the context of work, it is how we physically perform our required work tasks. Ergonomics seeks to optimize the mechanics of the task to the physical structure and limitations of the human body in order to prevent musculoskeletal disorders. The idea is to design our workplaces and equipment to fit the users by taking into account how we interact with these tools, machines and structures. The goals are to optimize human health and well-being while maintaining productivity and system performance.
The problem is that no two human bodies are identical. Therefore, there is no single “correct” posture or arrangement of computer, keyboard, monitor and mouse. However, there are some basic guidelines to follow in setting up your workstation that will help minimize any potential for problems. One excellent place to begin is with the OSHA ergonomic eTool.1 This comprehensive website has many articles and checklists to use in evaluating your current workstation setup and for making specific adjustments or improvements.
Posture is the key
We begin by conducting an honest evaluation of working posture. We are aiming for a balanced and neutral overall position. Let’s go from the top down. So, when sitting at your computer, start by ensuring that your workstation is arranged so that your head and neck are upright. In other words, the head, neck and torso are in line and not bent down or back. Next, face forward. This seems like simple common sense, but one of the most common things we run into is people having their monitor or the keyboard off to one side, forcing them to twist their head, neck or trunk while working. This is a guarantee for problems and must be avoided. It is best if the trunk or torso is perpendicular to the floor. A slight lean back into a good backrest is ok, but having to lean forward is asking for trouble.
Now let us move down to our shoulders and arms. Shoulders and upper arms should also generally be in line with your torso and nearly perpendicular to the floor. This is where most folks will harbor tension, so try to maintain awareness throughout the work shift and keep them relaxed. Try not to hunch your shoulders up or stretch forward. Keep upper arms and elbows close to the body and comfortably hanging or supported on armrests. Lower arms, i.e., forearms, wrists and hands, should remain straight and roughly 90 degrees to the upper arms. Pay particular attention to the wrists. If they are not kept straight in line with the hands and are bent up, down or sideways, you are asking for wrist strain that could lead to carpal tunnel syndrome and serious problems.
The final third is focused on a good foundation. The legs should form a near 90-degree angle, with the thighs horizontal and parallel to the floor and the lower legs perpendicular to the floor. It is okay if the thighs are slightly higher than the knees. Do not allow the thighs to be lower than the knees, though, as this tends to induce a forward lean and corresponding poor posture. Feet should rest comfortably flat on the floor or be supported with a sound footrest.
Technology tools and fit
Having a clear picture of the proper posture in mind, we now turn our attention to the hardware—the technological tools of the computer workstation—and how to set these up to facilitate our posture model. The three pieces that we use to interact with our workstation are the keyboard, the input device (e.g., mouse or trackball) and the monitor. By aligning these components properly, we can ensure that our posture remains optimal and our body stays injury-free. Thanks to the World Wide Web and powerful search engines, there are thousands of documents, articles and guides on the subject, and all are readily available. A couple of very good places to begin are those developed by two of the largest companies in the computer arena, i.e., Microsoft and Apple. Microsoft’s Healthy Computing Guide is an excellent and succinct article with clear, simple illustrations.2 And Apple’s Ergonomics web pages are some of the most easily understood and comprehensive we have seen.3
First we will discuss the keyboard and input device. These two need to be kept close together, ideally on a stable platform or tray that is easily adjustable. The mouse or trackball should be immediately next to the keyboard so its use does not require one to reach. Recall that proper posture means keeping our hands and wrists in line, so adjust the keyboard tray accordingly. Make sure there are no sharp edges or corners that the hands or wrists will rest on.
When setting up the monitor, keep these points in mind: Position the monitor directly in front of you so twisting or turning of your head or neck is not required. Pay attention to glare, either from windows or from lights, and try to set the screen facing away from these sources. Most experts recommend that the top of the monitor be close to eye level or slightly below it. Distance from the head to the screen should provide for easy reading without the need to lean your head, neck or torso either forward or backward. Workers with bifocals/ trifocals will need extra assistance. Screen resolution and font style and size can also be adjusted to aid with this.
Finally, we are strong believers in prevention and proactive programs. If you haven’t done so already, develop a computer workstation policy and train every employee regarding its proper setup. Perform routine surveillance of workstations along with a regular assessment, evaluation and updating of the policy. Do not assume that just because you have a workstation policy everyone will follow it. Take the time to occasionally observe your workers. Review the computer workstation guidelines as needed and purchase ergonomic hardware when it is warranted. You may consider bringing in an experienced and trained ergonomist to assist with this program depending on the size and nature of your facility. Review the policy and procedures at least annually and keep them up to date. By being proactive and observant, you are doing everything you can to prevent injury and keep your employees safe.