New Technologies and the Ergonomic Risk to Users: Are New Technologies Part of a Technology Nirvana or Newly Identified Ergonomics Risk Factors?

By Roth, Cynthia | Occupational Hazards, August 2007 | Go to article overview

New Technologies and the Ergonomic Risk to Users: Are New Technologies Part of a Technology Nirvana or Newly Identified Ergonomics Risk Factors?


Roth, Cynthia, Occupational Hazards


We have entered the modern world of new communication devices, microtechnologies and nanotechnologies. A new challenge has arisen out of these technologies: the ergonomic challenge to the technology users.

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Companies are investing in the new technology and communication infrastructures for better productivity and quality. These technologies allow for the sharing of information from one facility or employee to another with clear and concise communication that reduce errors.

Development of a corporate culture and shared values can facilitate the adoption of such technologies and communication and investment in advanced technologies may produce the anticipated results. However, employees might become overloaded and intimidated by the need to be in constant contact with others, causing unnecessary stress.

The Spread of Technology

Lost anywhere in the United States with nothing but a camera phone? You now are able to snap a picture of a nearby building or monument, send the photo to a database and soon receive a map and information about where you are. Increasingly sophisticated mobile phones are becoming popular devices to use for search for directions and other information. Easier still is the global positioning system (GPS), portable devices or software that can be installed in PDAs and phones or into vehicles. The problem with GPS is that you unknowingly can be tracked. Some companies track the movements of their employees for efficiency purposes or just plain "spying." This could cause increased stress for employees.

PDA-like cell phones used by many professionals offer a host of functions: e-mail, text messaging and Web browsing, among them. They were purchased by 16 million people worldwide in 2004; 4 million more than traditional PDAs. More than 2.2 million people have bought a BlackBerry since they came on the market, helping it to corner the top end of the wireless communications market. There were 200 million total phones sold globally in 2006.

The proliferation of broadband has more users moving more data across more networks. All that motion has made users come to expect the ability to connect from anywhere at any time in any country.

The Risks of Technology

The physical cost of such technology can be high, however. More and more cases of "BlackBerry thumbs," repetitive motion injuries and awkward posture risk factors are found in our fast-paced, multitasking society.

John Napier said, "The hand without a thumb is at worst nothing but an animated spatula and at best a pair of forceps whose points don't meet properly." The prime importance of the thumb is well-shown in compensation schemes for its injury. In AD 616, King Aethelbert in England established the equivalent of a 30 percent compensation for loss of a thumb but only 10 percent for loss of a finger. Things are not greatly changed today, although total loss of a thumb now rates as a 40 percent loss of the hand. The total loss of an index or long finger is only 20 percent of the hand.

The thumb is designed to flex and rotate in all directions, and it works differently from the fingers. Thumbs are designed as stabilizers for pinch gripping with a finger. That is why you only have two of them. It is the fingers that have dexterity, not the thumbs and the thumbs are not used to repetitive forceful movements.

Doctors in the United States and United Kingdom claim repetitive use could cause arthritis or harm tendons in the thumb. The earliest symptom of joint arthritis is pain with activities that involve pinch grips. When we use the hand-held communication devices, we grip them. Pain when opening jars, doorknobs, car doors and turning keys are symptoms that might occur after prolonged text messaging or using small devices.

Prolonged or heavy use of the thumb may produce an aching discomfort at the base of the thumb. …

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