Magazine article Insight on the News

Safety in the Home Office

Magazine article Insight on the News

Safety in the Home Office

Article excerpt

Many with home offices who use their computers without the benefit of ergonomic furniture and equipment suffer from a variety of repetitive-stress injuries that can be alleviated.

Once upon a time, office work was performed in an office, complete with a padded chair, supplies within easy reach and a lunch hour But in the late 1990s, 40 percent of American homes have a personal computer, making telecommuting an option and surfing the Internet a hobby. That means an "office" can be set up on the couch, in a bed or at the kitchen table. Even in an organized home office, many people ignore ergonomics in favor of hunching into any chair that is available and opening a laptop computer on a card-table-turned-desk.

Such lack of attention to home ergonomics can contribute to musculoskeletal complaints and repetitive stress injuries, says Scott Bautch, president of the American Chiropractic Association's Council on Occupational Health. "In the workplace, there has been a trend toward getting better equipment," says Bautch. "But this transition hasn't happened in the home. People will usually work with any equipment they have. If you are working at a computer eight hours at work, then coming home and playing games online for another two or three, the risk of problems is going to get worse."

Chiropractors see two things, says Bautch. "Upper back and neck tension and stiffness, and tendonitis, or carpal tunnel syndrome, and other problems in the wrist and hand. It is unbelievable what people will do at home. They will work with a keyboard in their lap."

According to Alan Hedge, professor of ergonomics at Cornell University, if a person sits at his or her home computer for more than one hour a day, ergonomics needs to be a priority. Brynda Pappas found that out the hard way. She recently began telecommuting one day a week for her job as the external-affairs manager for the American Occupational Therapy Association. After one day of working at a kitchen chair, her neck was "all crimped up. It was excruciating. I went to the Price Club and bought a regular, rolling office chair. People can work long hours on poor equipment and get themselves in a bad way."

When deciding what to put in a home office, keep in mind that something is ergonomic if it fits you, says Dave Grosenbaugh, owner of Ergonomic Resources, a Buffalo, N.Y., office-furniture company that now does one-quarter of its business in home offices. "People have to remember that if they are going to spend $1,500 on a computer, then they need to spend $500 on a workstation;' he says. "Or else it is like buying a nice suit with no tie or shoes."

A good chair should be adjustable and enable several different users to work with the monitor at eye level (avoiding neck strain) and with feet flat on the floor (helping keep the back aligned). The chair also should have a good backrest and be padded.

But the most important item is a good, adjustable keyboard tray, says Hedge. "On a keyboard tray, you can adjust the keyboard to slope downward, front to back, which is a much more natural position if the tray is level with your lap."

Ergonomic keyboards come with a "split design;' in which the keyboard is inverted into a shallow "V." The smaller keyboard is ideal for the smaller hands of women and children, and the split design reduces pressure on the wrists, says Karen Jacobs, president of the American Occupational Therapy Association. Newer designers may feature springs that change the force or feel of the keys. Twenty test subjects at the University of California at San Francisco, who had been experiencing hand numbness and tingling, showed a reduction in symptoms after using the new keyboard for 12 weeks.

No matter what style keyboard, elbows should be bent to a 90-degree angle and kept close to the body; wrists should be at a neutral position and not slanted up or down. Many repetitive-stress injuries are caused when a person reaches to click the mouse often, so the mouse should be on the same level as the keyboard and as close to the keyboard as possible. …

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