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Warning! Computers can cripple you

Make sure office work is not a pain in the neck

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My recent research has concentrated on how the design of computers and related devices can impact people with disabilities, for better or for worse.

What I have noticed is that many of the technologies are also designed to reduce the possibility that able-bodied people will be crippled by the use of computers. I think that users and their employees should understand the dangers and how to mitigate them.

A close friend of mine and a very close member of my family have both been struck down by repetitive strain injury (RSI) so I have seen from close up the devastating effect it can have.

My friend was in her early 40s and a fit and active squash player. Her job required long periods at the computer, both typing and developing presentations. One day she complained about pains in her arms and tried to carry on working; within a few weeks she could not move without pain, could not use the computer at all, and found it difficult to lift anything heavy. Complete rest for several months did help, after which she could cope with day to day tasks as long as she took frequent breaks. However now, some 10 years later, she has still not recovered and has never been able to work again.

My relative was only 23 when she spent a lengthy period creating some complex and detailed page layouts. This required many hours of precise small movements of the mouse and thousands of clicks and double-clicks. When her right hand started to hurt she swapped to using the mouse with her left. This resulted in frayed tendons in both arms which is very painful and meant she could do nothing with her hands at all. She could feed herself if the food was cut up and she used a light plastic fork, she could drink using a straw in a glass left on the table. Three years later, after lots of rest, weekly physiotherapy and Alexander technique she has improved; she can lift and carry light things but still can not use the computer for any length of time. We are confident that she will continue to get better and be able to do most things, but it seems unlikely that she will ever make a full recovery and will always have to be particular careful and conscious not to over do it.

I have used personal examples to bring the issue to light, but users and employees must recognise that this is not an unusual problem. The numbers are growing; a recent survey by the TUC showed that RSI effects one in 50 of the working population, and six people a day have to give up work because of it.

The crippling effect of RSI is a tragedy for the individuals and a significant drain on companies and the economy. In a future article I will look at technology that can reduce the chance of RSI. But firstly, here are some simple tips from the TUC that everyone can take to reduce the incidents of RSI:

  1. The most important factor in workplace design is adjustability. We are all different shapes and sizes. Make sure that your workstation is set up properly. That means, as a minimum:
    • You should have enough space to work.
    • The top of your screen should be at eye level and at a comfortable distance away from you.
    • Your forearms should be horizontal.
    • Make sure your employer provides you with an adjustable chair. Ideally you should find it comfortable to sit upright and have the seat tilted slightly forward.
    • Your feet should be flat on the floor or on a foot rest if you need one.
    • Wrist or palm rests should be provided and there should be space in front of the keyboard to support the hands during pauses in typing.
  2. If you do a lot of typing then make sure your employer offers you touch-typing training. Two finger typists are far more likely to get pains in the hand wrist and forearms. An alternative is asking for a voice recognition software package.
  3. Don't use the mouse too much. Always use a mouse mat. Consider using the controls on your computer to slow mouse movements down. Use keyboard shortcuts once you are used to them.
  4. Take regular short breaks, both from typing and from sitting in the same position.

You are legally entitled to have your computer equipment and workstation assessed to make sure that it meets your own individual needs. You are also entitled to regular breaks or changes of activities.

For more information on RSI, visit www.tuc.org.uk/rsi.

Copyright © 2006, IT-Analysis.com

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