The science of ergonomics plays a large role in how we arrange our offices and workrooms. By choosing the right furniture, equipment, and lighting, and using it correctly, we cut down on backaches and eyestrain and gain other health benefits.
ERGONOMICS AT HOME
Ergonomics has been used in designing work areas in many homes. You can use ergonomic principles to adjust such rooms as the kitchen and workshop to better fit your needs.
Organize your kitchen and workbench areas so that you can get the tools you use the most without having to stretch to reach them.
If you are quite tall, talk to a contractor about rebuilding counters or other workspaces so that you don‘t have to bend when working. Frequent bending can strain the back.
When buying kitchen tools, choose ones with ergonomically designed handles. Such items as knives and potato peelers have been redesigned to fit the hand better so that slicing and chopping are more comfortable. Look for ergonomically designed gardening tools as well.
THE HOME OFFICE
Working at home gives you greater freedom to arrange the office for your own tastes. However, since most people have little extra room for a home office, it‘s important to set up your space with care.
Choose a space that has no other uses (don‘t, for example, simply take over the dining room table).
If you don‘t have room to spare, section off part of a larger room. Floor—to—ceiling bookcases will create a feeling of privacy. You could even convert an unused part of a garage or a walk-in closet as long as it has proper ventilation, good lighting, and enough electrical outlets.
When you choose furniture, don‘t settle for card tables and folding chairs. Remember that your productivity will be higher if you are comfortable. Select tables and desks without sharp edges, or cover sharp edges with soft material.
THE WORKPLACE OFFICE
Poorly designed office space can be bad for morale and bad for the body. Aching backs, headaches, sore eyes, and irritability are just a few of the more common complaints.
If you are having any discomfort related to your work setup, tell your employer as soon as possible; an early change may prevent the discomfort from turning into a real problem. Be clear about what needs to be changed. Many companies will go along with such requests, having learned that improving office space can lead to higher job satisfaction, greater productivity, and fewer sick days.
TONING DOWN NOISE
If noise is bothering you in the office, try to eliminate or reduce it at its source—ask your neighbor to use headphones when listening to the radio, for example. You can also try ergonomic measures.
Ask your office manager if it is possible to carpet hard floors and install acoustic—tile ceilings to absorb sound.
If printers and facsimile machines are loud, find out if acoustical enclosures can be placed over them.
If your office is separated from a noisy neighbor by a waist-high partition, ask for a taller partition, which will block or absorb more sound. Higher walls also provide a greater amount of privacy.
Tack memos and mementos on hard wall panels instead of soft office partitions, where they interfere with sound absorption.
If the problem is ringing phones, ask co-workers to lower the signal volume on their phones.
Place your own phone near a soft partition, which will better absorb the sound.
Try listening to soothing music on a tape player with headphones. Or you may want to invest in a white—noise machine, which will help cover distracting sounds.
YOUR OFFICE CHAIR
Ask if you can try out a new chair for a day before you or your company buys it. Many vendors will let you do this.
Adjustable chairs make the best office chairs since they can accommodate most people regardless of size.
Once you have an adjustable chair—adjust it. Many people go for years without bothering to do this.
Your chair‘s seat should be flat or only slightly contoured, to allow easy adjustments of posture, and wide enough to allow shifts from side to side. Also, the seat should taper downward at the front to avoid pressure on the back of the thighs.
The seat cushion should be about half an inch to an inch deep. A hard seat can hamper circulation in the legs.
Armrests are not essential, but they can ease back stress since they allow you to shift weight to your arms. Many armrests are too high, so height—adjustable or removable ones are best.
Your chair should offer firm padding and back support that fits the natural curve of the spine. The backrest should be neither springy nor rigid. Chairs that have a spring adjustment let you control the degree of support.
If your chair lacks a contoured backrest, a well—placed cushion could save stress on your back.
Your chair should allow your back to angle backward a few degrees to increase blood flow and reduce compression of the spine.
Leather chairs are attractive but slippery. Instead, opt for chairs covered with a nonstick fabric to prevent sliding.
Maintain good posture, whether you are sitting upright working at a computer terminal or leaning over a desk to write a memo (see Posture Made Perfect).
Your feet should rest flat on the floor with your knees bent at a 90° angle. If necessary, get a footstool.
Be sure to fidget. No chair will keep you comfortable all day, and sitting for long periods of time is bad for your back. Change positions and get up and walk around from time to time.
CUT DOWN ON GLARE
If you have a choice of computer monitors, opt for the flattest screen, which is less prone to glare than a more curved monitor.
Another way to cut glare is to tape a piece of cardboard to the top of the computer. It should jut out slightly, shielding the screen from the overhead light. Alternatives available in stores include computer hoods and antiglare screens that fit over the front of the monitor.
To reduce glare from a window, place your monitor at right angles to the window.
If you have to pore over reading material for hours at a time, consider getting a book—holding stand. This allows you to read sitting upright. Hunching over can be bad for circulation, especially for pregnant women.
TREAT YOUR EYES RIGHT
When doing computer or another close—up work, give your eyes a 15—second rest every 15 to 20 minutes. Focus on a distant object, massage the area around your eyes, or walk away from your desk.
Remind yourself to blink. Concentrating intently on a computer screen can interfere with the normal blinking reflex. (Staring at a terminal may also speed up tear evaporation, which contributes to dry eyes.) The longer you go without blinking, the drier and more uncomfortable your eyes may become. This is a particular concern for anyone who wears contact lenses.
Ask your eye—care specialist about glasses specially designed for computer users. Also, find out about a lens coating that cuts down on light reflection.
Consult an eye specialist if you repeatedly experience headaches, blurred vision, stinging sensations in the eyes, or other forms of eyestrain.
The visual angle between eyes and monitor should be between 15 and 20 degrees below horizontal. With most monitors, the top of the screen should be at or slightly below eye level. Arrange your chair and monitor accordingly. You may want to tilt the monitor back unless this creates glare.
Spend some time adjusting your screen for image quality, viewing distance, and viewing angle. Have the monitor repaired if the image is blurry, dull, or flickering.
When you type or work closely from printed materials, keep the pages on a stand at the same height as your monitor. This will help to minimize the amount of refocusing the eyes must do.
Dust your computer screen frequently. Wipe gently with a slightly damp rag.
Buy desks with matte rather than shiny finishes so that they don‘t reflect overhead light.
Never cradle the phone between your neck and shoulder. This can create or intensify neck or back pain.
Whenever a phone conversation lasts more than 10 minutes, move around to work your muscles as you talk or listen. Lean back and lean forward; stand up and sit down.
Consider getting a headset if you spend a lot of time on the phone, especially if you type or write as you talk. A headset may prevent a stiff neck.
For a less expensive alternative, get a shoulder rest. Be sure to switch ears often.
REPETITIVE STRAIN INJURY
The computer keyboard has contributed to an increase in the incidence of repetitive strain injury (RSID). As its name indicates, this disorder can develop when someone does the same movement over and over. A common type of RSI is carpal tunnel syndrome, which affects the hands and wrists. Because computer keyboards do not require typists to change positions often, tendons and muscles in the hands and wrists have to bear great stress.
To prevent injury, make sure your arms and hands are positioned correctly at the keyboard: Your upper arms should hang vertically, and your forearms should be horizontal (or slightly above that angle). Keep your wrists straight, rather than bending them up or down. You may need to adjust your chair and keyboard height. If your desk is too high, use a keyboard drawer, which attaches to the desk‘s underside, unless it gives you too little legroom.
Use your whole arm to move the computer‘s mouse; don‘t just bend your wrist.
When you have momentary pauses (as when reading the screen), take your hands off the keyboard and mouse.
Take hourly breaks to stretch overused muscles. Exercise the hands, wrists, and fingers (see Limber Up Your Hands).
Consult a doctor if you have discomfort or loss of sensation in the hand—untreated, RST‘s can lead to chronic pain and disability. Do not buy your own hand splint without first seeing a doctor, because an improper splint can cause even more damage.
Keep your fingernails trimmed. Long nails force you to extend your fingers to hit the keys; this can cause injury.