Ergonomics At Work

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Ergonomics At Work

Have you ever used a gently sloped keyboard that gives you better comfort while typing? Ever noticed how the ergonomic design lets you place your hands, wrists and forearms in a natural position for greater comfort?

Ergonomics entails matching the design of physical devices to the needs and characteristics of the human body. The term is derived from the Greek words 'ergon', meaning work, and 'nomoi', meaning natural laws-in other words, the study of any man-machine interface, whether physiological or psychological. Keyboards and mice that take ergonomics into consideration are designed to be as comfortable as possible. They increase productivity, reduce operator fatigue, and improve the work environment.

Edging Towards Ergonomics
Ergonomics is becoming increasingly important in the design and use of computer peripherals. Most conventional keyboards cause painful and even permanent injuries to the spine, fingers, neck and wrist joints. 'Overuse' injuries and cervical spondilitis are some of the persistent hazards associated with poor computer ergonomics. Hence, most ergonomic keyboards aim to get the hands and wrists in the right position.

Keyboard makers have developed a variety of alternative, ergonomic keyboard designs to improve work performance for users, protect them against Repetitive Stress Injury (RSI) and thereby bring down professional hazards to a minimum.

Moninder Jain, country manager, Logitech India, says, "Comfort is usually a personal factor. However, there are specific design traits that can determine how comfortable a keyboard is."

Jain adds, "Research indicates that the keyboard height and slope can increase wrist extension, thus increasing the risk of hand, forearm and upper extremity discomfort. As a result, you might want to consider a thin and flat keyboard design."

"The Logitech Cordless Desktop LX and MX family of keyboards, for example, are all 22.3 mm in height. They also feature 'zero degree tilt', which means the primary rows of keys are all at the same height. Also, keyboards that offer navigation controls complementary to those on the mouse also have ergonomic benefits," says Jain.

Indeed, in most ergonomic keyboards, the key mechanisms have become flatter and lighter, and require less force. An ideal ergonomic design should eliminate the inadequacies of the keyboard and mouse. It should be flexible to meet unique user needs, in regard to dimensions and otherwise, of all users.

Ergonomic input devices let you adjust your position more easily and stay further back from the screen, aiding flexibility and easing stress on the eyes, back and shoulders.

Tips For A Balanced Computing Posture 

Balance your head above your torso: don't roll your shoulders or neck forward

Place your monitor at a comfortable reading distance, just below eye level, tilted up a little, and free from glare

Place your keyboard and mouse on a tray so you don't need to reach up to them

Keep your keyboard lowered and angled slightly away (negative pitch)

Keep your elbows close by your side:don't reach out. The elbow should be at an angle of 100 to 110 degrees

Don't bend your wrists up or out 

Don't rest your elbows or wrists on anything while typing - no armrests or wrist rests.

The feet should be placed firmly on the floor. Otherwise, use a footrest 

The back should be supported against the chair's backrest

Take a micro break: five seconds every five to seven minutes 

Take a macro break: two minutes every 30 to 40 minutes 

Basic Inadequacies
Have you noticed that the rows of alphanumeric keys on the keyboard don't line up in columns? This arrangement was first introduced in the mechanical typewriter to prevent the levers from colliding. Obviously, this design serves no function on an electronic keyboard.

There is no particular justification for the layout of the keys in the QWERTY format. The Dvorak layout is an alternative to the familiar QWERTY. But despite the advantages of the Dvorak layout, QWERTY has remained the de facto standard.


Any design which promotes a neutral position of the wrist is helpful"
Dr Deepak Sharan
, Orthopedic consultant

"I don't routinely recommend Dvorak to RSI patients, but encourage them to try out various modifications to see what works for them. At the very least, when they first make the switch, the unfamiliar layout slows them down, and assists the healing process in injured arms and wrists," says Dr Deepak Sharan, a Bangalore-based orthopaedic surgeon, who also provides consultancy in Ergonomics/RSI (and offers rehabilitation) to top IT companies in India.

Dr Sharan feels, "In general, any design that promotes a neutral posture of the wrist is helpful. However, like every other ergonomic tool, different people respond differently to the same product, and it's impossible to make generalised recommendations for everybody." 

Preventing Injuries
The Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS) and RSI are caused by a continuous stressful motion of the fingers, wrists, elbows, shoulders, back, and neck. Soreness, numbness, a tingling feeling and wrist pain are other symptoms.

"Over 75 per cent of IT professionals in India report musculoskeletal symptoms of varying severity at work," says Dr Sharan. Srikant Makarani, underwent myotherapy treatment to heal a painful wrist consition. Makarani feels that had he used an ergonomic keyboard and mouse at the outset, the problem would not have been so severe.

Makarani, has now switched to the Microsoft Natural Keyboard Elite series, and vouches for the comfort they offer over conventional keyboards.

Neeru Pahwa has been in the IT industry for the past seven years. An engineer with an MNC, she is on leave to recuperate from RSI. Pahwa says, "A year ago, I developed a painful sensation in my wrists. At first, most doctors could not correctly diagnose the reason for the injury. It was very frustrating. In a few months, the pain extended to my shoulders and neck. And now, it has affected and worsened the nerves as well."

At present, Pahwa is undergoing daily treatment for her ailment. She strongly feels that increased awareness about ergonomic devices coupled with information on correct posture will spare others from facing a similar predicament.

Preliminary findings from Dr Sharan's four-year study on RSI have revealed the following predisposing ergonomic factors responsible for computer-related injuries (percentage-wise):          
                        
Lack of appropriate breaks (86), improper monitor height (60), mouse being too high (54), resting the arm or wrist on a hard surface while typing (42), keyboard being too high (40), and bizarre leg positioning (25). 

Safety And Health
Dr Sharan feels that ergonomics  primarily play a preventive role- an important role, but one that cannot compensate for inefficient management or ineffective practical training.

He says, "While inadequacies in the ergonomic design of keyboard and mice do not seem to be major factors causing RSI, we do encourage our patients to try out the various input devices available and see which one works for them."

He goes on to add, "One fundamental problem with the design of alternative keyboards and mice is that it initially feels good because the stress shifts to parts that aren't injured yet. However, it does not address some of the root causes of RSI: repetition and static positions."

Take Your Pick
Alternative keyboards promote neutral wrist postures. They use different designs to change the user's posture. By and large, designs try to tackle the issue of wrist extension.

For instance, fixed split keyboards try to straighten the wrist by increasing the distance between the right and left sides of the keyboard so that each half is aligned with the forearm.

A complementary ergonomic mouse allows you to work comfortably for hours by keeping the hand in a neutral position. For instance, in the Logitech V500 Cordless Notebook Mouse, the patented expandable chassis articulates seven degrees to fit the hand while in use.

Then there are multi-touch fixed-angle split keyboards with a touch sensitive surface, wherein with a few finger gestures you can issue multiple commands. Multi-touch software can track and interpret the motion of several hands-and their corresponding fingers-at a time.

In some designs, keyboards are completely split (
www.kinesis. com). Vertically split keyboards require the user to type with the hands facing each other (www. safetype.com). The Orbitouch keyboard (www.keybowl.com) lets users rest their hands on two domed surfaces and then move these surfaces to generate characters. Hunt-and-peck typists may need time to get accustomed to using such keyboards; touch typists are easily able to adjust.

Increase In Productivity
Many designs result in demonstrable productivity improvements, with users improving their overall work speed.

For instance, some keyboards have one-touch buttons that take you directly to the most used programmes. By merely pressing a single button, you can start many of your favourite media applications, navigate videos and comfortably adjust settings.

In India, Microsoft (www. microsoft.com) has introduced special curved and split keyboards in the Natural Keyboard Elite series. The keyboard is split into two, as a result, only minimal movement is needed to hit each key-and the hands move very little.

Ergonomic keyboards offer health benefits, as we've mentioned earlier. Still, the ubiquitious conventional keyboard has the largest number of takers because of its low cost.

Nevertheless, this equation will change as businesses find that ergonomically-designed input devices increase productivity and offer less risk of injury. Such devices could certainly become the norm one day.

If you spend a lot of time at your computer, a keyboard featuring cordless technology, a comfortable design and convenient controls, along with a complementary mouse may be worth the extra expense.


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