Protecting the body from computer work

Protecting the body from computer work

By Benito Teehankee

Managing for Society, Manila Times

June 9 and 16, 2010

Part 1

Manny (not his real name) is a typical hard-working, white-collar employee. For the almost ten years he has worked in the company, he has always given the hours needed and then some. He’s been happy that his office is air-conditioned, his PC up-to-date and his desk comfortable. Looking out his window to view the condominium projects rising around his office building, he feels lucky that he works indoors and is not physically exposed to safety risks. Sure, there are days when his body feels really sluggish. But that’s nothing a cup hot coffee won’t solve, he assures himself. And then there are the days when he has to work on a long report for hours on his PC and has to go home late.

The long days have become more common now, unfortunately. Also, Manny’s body has been acting up in more than the usual places lately. He has more frequent backaches and his neck and shoulders often feel stiff. He’s had to see his optometrist again to adjust his eyeglass prescription upwards. What’s most bothersome is that he has been having difficulty typing for longer than thirty minutes on his PC before he needs to take a break because his wrist begins to stiffen and ache. Worse, he finds himself waking up in the middle of the night with strange shooting pains from his right wrist to the rest of his arm. He’s getting old, he surmises. He has nothing to worry about.

Manny’s worsening physical condition is not rare. The thing is it has little to do with age and more to do with how he works at his desk and on his PC. Like most white-collar workers who depend on the PC to do most of their work, Manny knows next to nothing about the physical problems and even injuries that arise from working improperly on a PC for extended lengths of time. Manny suffers from what is technically called “repetitive strain injuries.”

Personal computers have been a boon to many workplaces and have been embraced by companies all over the world since they became popular in the early 80s. However, their relative newness and their tendency to engross workers for hours on end have hidden their downside. Where companies have not given proper orientation to their workers and not provided the right work stations, improper computer use has become a quiet cause of occupational injuries for millions of people.

Fortunately, if you’re a PC-intensive worker like Manny, there is much you can do to avoid his situation for yourself and for those who work for you by following simple standards from the field of “ergonomics.” Wikipedia defines ergonomics as the “science of designing the job, equipment, and workplace to fit the worker [in order to] prevent repetitive strain injuries, which can develop over time and can lead to long-term disability.”

The basic principle behind ergonomic standards is that the body at work should be as close as possible to its relaxed and natural position. Any deviation from this causes work strain and could, in time, lead to injuries. Let’s start with avoiding Manny’s stiffness in the neck. Check if the top of your monitor screen is at your natural eye level, with the monitor about 18-24 inches away from your eyes. Apply the same standard to any sheet of text that you need to look at as you work by using an adjustable copy holder. This ensures that you are not bowing your head too much when working and straining your neck in the process. PC monitors embedded in desktops are nice to look at but long work using them are guaranteed to cause neck pains. This is simply because bending to bow the head is not the neck’s natural position.

Part 2

Protecting the body from computer work – Part 2

Last week, we talked about Manny’s many body aches from using the PC improperly and how you can avoid them. I explained the importance of avoiding neck pains by keeping your monitor and any page you’re looking at at a natural eye-level when you work. There are other important things to check if you want to avoid long-term PC-related injuries.

Let’s check your seat’s backrest. Is it giving you good back support, especially for the lower back? Your spine has a natural S shape when viewed from the side. Your backrest must respect this shape by supporting your lower back – also called the “small” of the back. “It’s a good thing I have an ergo chair”, you say? Sorry, but most so-called ergonomic chairs do not deserve the name because they don’t give the right lower back support. Look at your seat’s backrest and if you don’t see the S shape, chances are it’s not giving you good back support; get a new seat or get a backrest supplement or cushion for the small of your back.

A couple of other things to check about your seat: Is it the right height and shape? You know it’s at the right height if your feet are planted comfortably on the floor as you work. As to shape, check that the front edge of the seat flows forward and downwards like a waterfall, that is, without pressing on the back of your thighs. With the right seat height and shape, blood flows freely to your legs while you work. Otherwise, adjust the height of your seat to make the needed correction.

What about your eyes? Are your PC habits eye-friendly? I talked about monitor height above but it’s also important that your monitor doesn’t reflect glare from any strong light source, especially direct sunlight. Anti-glare filters can help but you pay a price by having a darker monitor; not necessarily a good thing either. Just reposition your monitor or cover some windows if you have to.

You can also make your PC easier on the eyes by lowering your monitor’s brightness setting to a more comfortable level. Many people have their monitor settings at 10 out of 10 when 6 out of 10 would be just fine. Need I add that using a larger font size is doing a big favor to your eyes? Remember that if you need to strain to see what you’re working on, you are likely to be damaging your eyes.

By far the most common sources of body aches from PC work are the keyboard and mouse. Do you have to reach out repeatedly to use them? That’s exactly what leads to “repetitive strain” injury. Instead, the keyboard and mouse must be close enough to you such that your arms and shoulders are at their natural, relaxed positions, i.e., your forearms are parallel to the floor and form a 90-degree angle at the elbows when you work. Use a pull-out keyboard and mouse rest at the right height; your shoulders, back, arms and wrists will thank you.

No matter what kind of situation your PC or seat may be in, the most basic thing you can do to protect your body is to take regular breaks. Blink often and look at something green about thirty feet or farther away every now and then to relax your eyes. Walk around and stretch your neck, wrists, arms and legs every hour or so. Walking around to chat with your workmates (not by YM please!) will do wonders not only for your body but also for your work relationships. In short, the best defense against PC injury is, to paraphrase old advice: “Learn to walk away from your PC and get a life!”