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Wed 1 May 2002 04:00 AM

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Repetitive strain injuries cost US industry $150 billion a year in lost productivity. Use of badly-designed equipment, combined with their improper usage, has led to painful musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). But at last, there seems to be a solution to this problem, thanks to ergonomics.

I|~||~||~|The “seated” office worker is in big trouble. On an average, he spends a third of his life sitting during his working career and has not once, questioned that a possible injury to his back, neck or spine may have stemmed from improper sitting postures combined with badly-designed office furniture. Aggravating the problem is the ubiquitous use of computers in the workplace that has extended injuries to the eyes, wrist and shoulders as well. According to US-based Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), 68% of workplace illnesses are reported to be repetitive strain injury (RSI) cases, making it one of the fastest growing workplace injuries. And, according to Professor Paul Leigh of the medical school of the University of California-Davis, businesses are losing more than $150 billion a year to workplace injury and illnesses in the US alone.The proposed solution to this problem is ergonomics — the science of adjusting the work environment to fit an end user’s body to ensure maximum convenience and comfort. Although one ergonomic solution does not fit all end users perfectly as a result of unique body structures, ergonomic solution providers have worked around this issue by providing adjustment features to their furniture. The height of chairs, for instance, can be easily raised or lowered to suit each user, lumbar support can be shifted to cater to different users and flat-panel monitors come with adjustable stands. ||**||II|~||~||~|A dealer in ergonomic furniture in the Middle East mentioned that an employee’s productivity and the vision of his management can be gauged by the chair on which he sits. “In some companies the manager, who travels throughout the year usually gets the most comfortable chair with lumbar support while the employee below him who sits all day gets a normal one,” he explains. According to him, some decision makers today in the region are aware of ergonomics but are unwilling to spend that extra money to make their employees’ lives easier. However, there are others who are ignorant of the need to make an informed choice. “Very often, when our customers come to choose furniture for their offices, we ask them ‘what about the chairs’ and they brush it off by saying ‘That’s okay. We’ll do that in the end’,” comments George Varghese, manager — project division of Dubai-based office furniture showroom, Al Reyami. “Decision makers need to realise that the nature of work has begun to change,” he explains. Conventional work environments pose a great deal of threat to the office worker. What he requires instead is flexible functionality from his furniture. Ergonomic furniture and computer equipment must be given careful consideration so as to check injury to employees. This, in turn, will ensure maximum employee productivity and high efficiency at the workplace. ||**||III|~||~||~|Ergonomics can be implemented on two levels in an office. On a large scale, improvements to the office in terms of better-planned work spaces, ergonomically-designed office furniture and computer equipment for employees, and good lighting conditions to preclude visual impairment are desirable. In the ergonomic work environment created by Al Reyami, for instance, desk frames are created with holes to improve air circulation. The computer rests on a trolley, which is not attached to the work table. This enables the user to pull the table out if he requires more space to rest his hands. At the same time, the table comes with casters (rollers) behind and gliders in front so that the table doesn’t roll backwards and forwards when the user works but remains steady. But it is not enough to have good furniture. Bad posture is a significant cause for back aches as well. However, ergonomics is not meant to address only the big issues. An end user’s constant companions at the desk are the keyboard and the mouse — two products that will determine your efficiency in the workplace. Use of badly-designed keyboards and mice combined with improper use have led to symptoms such as persistent or recurring discomfort, pain, throbbing, aching, tingling, numbness, burning sensations, or stiffness in hands, wrists and palms. Symptoms such as these can be associated with painful and, sometimes, permanently disabling injuries or disorders of the nerves, muscles, tendons, or other parts of the body. These musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) include carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, tenosynovitis, and other painful conditions. Taking timely measures to prevent these disorders through the use of well-designed equipment and additional support products will help you to tide over such problems. Keyboards, for instance, come in all shapes and sizes to cater to different users. Devoid of a wrist rest and not designed to fit your hands naturally, the conventional keyboard poses as subtle a threat to your hands as cheap sunglasses do to your eyes, when keeping the sunlight out but affording no UV protection. The difference is subtle, the consequence gradual and painful. ||**||IV|~||~||~|There are affordable ergonomic options in the market that have been developed after extensive research into biomechanics, lifestyles of end users, common working positions, and different shapes and sizes of users. These products come in different moulds to suit the needs of different users and each individual needs to try what is best for him before purchasing it. This will reduce the risk involved with computing. Vendors address ergonomic needsMicrosoft, for instance, has researched methods for making the interaction between the hardware user and software applications as natural as possible. Consequently it introduced the split-keyboard ergonomic design, with Natural Keyboard Elite, seven years ago. This keyboard enables users to place their hands in a more natural resting position. The width and angle of the keyboard is said to help users keep their shoulders straighter and arms more relaxed while typing. An integrated palm rest provides a surface on which users can rest their hands between periods of typing and legs beneath the keyboard allow for adjustments to accommodate different body sizes and chair and desk heights. Another design from Microsoft is the Internet keyboard Pro, which comes with ‘Hot Key’ shortcut buttons on the keyboard that can be programmed to go straight to applications such as multimedia players and e-mail when you click on them. These keyboards also come with a built-in wrist pad. The latest to join this family of ergonomic keyboards is the Microsoft Office Keyboard, which is said to be the result of three years of research conducted on one million different users and nearly six million keystroke actions. A unique left-side Single Touch Pad places some of the most commonly-used tasks at the user’s fingertips. Repositioned and clearly labelled function keys enable utilisation of all keyboard features as well as more than 50 PC and Macintosh programmable software functions. Its enhancements are reported to have been ergonomically engineered to increase efficiency and productivity by cutting down on extra keystrokes and encouraging full keyboard usage.While Microsoft has taken the path to improve the link between hardware applications and software usage, vendors such as Logitech and Genius have moved to providing cordless keyboards and mice. If your device is improperly weighted or its cord causes a drag, tension may build up as your body tries to compensate. Moreover, cords force us to move forward if they are short, making the body tense. This action repeated daily over many hours could cause damage to the body. But the problem is resolved with cordless products. Cordless mice are not thought to be a luxury anymore although vendors do provide both options to consumers to give them a wider choice. Mice come in all shapes and sizes — one of the biggest to be seen, so far, is the optical mouse from Microsoft. Optical mice don’t come with a rolling ball underneath, thereby, eliminating any strain to our wrists. Although Microsoft claims that its mouse is ergonomically designed, the size is enough to put most users off. It is important to purchase a mouse that fits the dimensions of your hands and is comfortable for daily use. Cordless mice ease wrist acheMice from Logitech and Genius are more the norm in terms of dimensions. They have combined the luxuries of ergonomics with modern computing. The latest offering from Genius, for instance, is a wireless optical mouse, which works using RF (radio Frequency) Digital Radio technology. A transmitter/receiver, about the same size as the mouse itself, plugs into the USB port and can be left out of sight behind your PC. The ergonomic scroll wheel on the mouse allows for easy four-way scrolling and can cut down on movement. Two programmable buttons are placed in a convenient place so that you can quick launch tasks and applications easily. As the mouse has no ball mechanism, you will not need to clean the mouse or remove congealed dust particles. ||**||V|~||~||~|A different kind of mouse that has not yet officially been launched in the market comes from 3M. Called the 3M Renaissance mouse, this design, which allows the user to mouse with a more neutral forearm position, was compared to a mouse of traditional design. According to research material released by the company, “after using the new mouse for six months, a significant reduction in pain intensity and duration for the wrist/hand, forearm, shoulder and neck was reported in comparison to a control group.” This mouse allows for a handshake posture as opposed to the traditional palm down posture. The vertical grip is said to reduce the pressure on the wrist’s median nerve and reduce the muscle load while using the mouse. The larger muscles in the arm are used rather than smaller muscles in the fingers. While most other companies have decided to introduce ergonomic changes within existing designs, 3M clearly takes a radically different route even at the stage of conceptualising ergonomic products. Moreover, 3M has introduced a variety of such innovative products into the market. Some that are available in the market include gel-filled wrist rests and mouse pads as well as adjustable notebook platforms. These gel-filled wrist rests come with a lifetime warranty and place the keyboard and mouse on the same level. Endorsed by the American Chiropractic Association, these wrist-rests come with an integrated base plate, which helps to float the wrist rest off the edge of the desk when space on the table is limited. The good thing about this wrist-rest is that it accommodates most keyboards, encourages neutral wrist position to reduce wrist fatigue and discomfort and retrofits to existing workstations. But ergonomics is not limited to keyboards and mice. An important consideration in ergonomics is the screen in front of which we sit and do our work everyday. According to a white paper study released by ICEX, Inc., an independent research firm based in Boston, large-screen monitors are associated with significant productivity and work quality benefits. According to the report, when Insight Enterprises, a US-based company used larger screens for their product management group, it is said to “have helped them achieve 50% to 100% productivity improvement in entering product information.” According to the company, this translated to a cost savings of about $20,000 per month. The reasons for advocating bigger screens are several. They lessen fatigue and are said to help people multi-task better. They also reduce physical strain “because less scrolling means less ‘mousing’ and fewer keystrokes.” As a result of this, UK-based British Petroleum Co., the world’s third largest oil company, is said to have set 17” as the corporate standard for its new IT infrastructure being rolled out to 30,000 desktops worldwide. It has also deployed 1,000 high-end workstations with 17” multimedia monitors to support a global desktop videoconferencing capability. ||**||VI|~||~||~|Interviews conducted by ICEX showed that “having to scroll less was one of the biggest advantages of a large-screen monitor; reduced scrolling made employees more productive.” Product specialists at a computer software company said they would spend 20% more time scrolling if they did not have 17” screens. Two graphic designers at Insight who upgraded from 17” to 21” monitors estimated time savings of 10% and 25%. Moreover, TFT screens help more than CRT. Where the former cannot be implemented, employees should use anti-glare screens. These are but a few of the ways in which the ergonomic needs of the office-going worker can be addressed. However, this focuses only on a tiny fraction of the science of ergonomics, which speaks about people doing different kinds of mechanical jobs in various fields of enterprise. However, a significant portion of those affected by the lack of good ergonomics is the office worker. Those who give it some thought while designing offices and purchasing furniture will ensure better employee productivity and well being, which, in turn, will boost a company’s bottom line. ||**||

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