The original design of the computer and its accessories failed on theo occupational health problems. Victoria Greenhalgh takes a look at ways to improve ergonomics in the workplace. whole to take into account one important consideration, namely the physical delicacy of the human being. Now, as we move into the next century, the science of ergonomics is beginning to highlight the requirements of the worker.
The word "ergonomics" originates from the Greek word ergo, meaning work, and means the study of the relationship between workers and their environment.
Ergonomically designed workplaces or products are those which minimise effort and discomfort for the worker.
With 90% of today's office workers using computers on a daily basis, the early faults in IT design have become apparent. Health and Safety Executive (HSE) figures show that one in 11 of the workforce suffer occupational health problems, involving 750,000 people and 13 million lost days of production in the UK each year.
For the visionary IT manager with a budget to spend on improving working conditions and productivity, the array of multi-coloured, winged and curved input devices on the market can become a bewildering jungle.
Before brandishing their cheque books, managers should gain a clearer understanding of the reasoning behind ergonomics.
The key to pain relief
Today's "qwerty" keyboard was invented more than 100 years ago when input of information had to be slowed down to stop the typewriter from jamming.
It is not a logical layout, but as it is now the worldwide standard it is unlikely to be altered in the near future.
An attempt by a 1930s ergonomics researcher from the University of Washington to introduce a better design never caught on, so the keyboard remains a source of many health-related problems with its users.
With IBM's introduction of the PC in 1981, the speed of processing surpassed many users' abilities to type. The result has been an epidemic of repetitive strain injuries (RSI), resulting in the medical authorities and manufacturers being forced to take notice and look again at keyboard design. Of the ergonomically designed keyboards on the market, fixed split keyboards, such as Microsoft's Natural Elite, are the most readily available. Although rather inelegant, these eliminate the need for users to rotate their arms into a palm downward position. Pricing for these types is in the region of £40, which is about twice as expensive as a standard keyboard.
Sculpted keyboards such as the Kinesis Classic Contour have keys arranged in sculpted depressions. Adjustable split keyboards, such as those made by Lexmark, ERGOlogic and Comfort, can vary their horizontal and vertical split angles. These types tend to be more expensive than their fixed cousins and are generally marketed as remedial products.
For sufferers of RSI, a top-of-the-range ergonomic keyboard such as Maltron's £375 Ergonomic range can make an enormous difference.
"We have helped more than 600 people back to work with our 3D keyboard," claims Stephen Hobday, managing director of Maltron. "We have letters from clients thanking us. These are handmade therapeutic devices and help the wrists to heal while at work."
Results from a recent survey on alternative keyboards by Interface Analysis Associates, a Californian company, suggest that they bring a sense of well-being and raise awareness of posture to the users. The report concludes: "81% of users felt that their alternative keyboard was worth far more than a standard, and the split design was clearly better. It was generally felt that the lack of pain (while typing) outweighed the extra money spent."
Keyboards that are designed along ergonomic principles are the norm for most companies who would rather deter potential RSI than wait until it is too late.
"Ergonomics are part of our developmental strategy," says James Griffiths, product marketing manager at Dell UK, which sells the Microsoft Natural Keyboard bundled with Microsoft software at £94. "We are happy to provide customers with a mix-and-match range of ergonomic products, if required."
Compaq follows the same line of thinking and, although it does not offer a split keyboard, its Space Saver helps free up vital desk space and wrist rests are provided with all notebooks.
"All our products are now designed along ergonomic principles," confirms Neil Dagger, senior product manager at Compaq. "We also provide a comfort and safety guide to all our customers to ensure that they get the most out of our IT equipment."
Another piece of equipment that can cause problems is the mouse. The mouse has undergone a series of transformations, with some of today's bizarre-looking products appearing more Star Wars than desktop. However, as with the keyboards, the aim is to produce a mouse that is as effective as it is comfortable in the hand.
"There are some odd creations around," says Compaq's Dagger. "We offer two types - the plain ergonomic mouse and Microsoft's IntelliMouse which contains a scroll reel to make Internet searching much easier. This little device removes the eye strain from searching for the scroll bar at the top of the screen."
The IntelliMouse Pro is the newest product from Microsoft's ergonomic laboratories and claims to offer the user the highest levels of comfort and efficiency. The £50 mouse can be held from a variety of angles and has placement cues to help users orientate their hands.
Some companies have focused specifically on mouse development. "We see ourselves as leaders of mouse design," says Will Blankers, technical support manager at Logitech. "We have created products that are shaped to fit the hand perfectly, trackball mice and cordless mice. Our research labs are constantly evaluating and improving our designs."
IBM's Trackpoint IV technology is a move away from the mouse as an input device. The company says it is 20% faster in cursor control than using a normal mouse. "We go to the customer not only to ask what they want," says Lee Green, director of corporate design and identity at IBM, "but to research how they work."
Another alternative input device that has become popular with graphic designers, artists and engineers is the ergonomically designed tablet. Where once a mouse was used to draw on the screen, now a tablet is used, along with a pressure-sensitive pointing device that creates an image directly on the computer screen.
"Although our products are designed with comfort as a high priority, our Ultrapad range was more difficult for left-handed users," explains Darren Ward, internal products advisor at Wacom, which specialises in making tablets. "These problems have been rectified with the Intuos tablets."
To combat the effects of RSI, some users have turned to speech recognition software to minimise contact with the keyboard. Products include IBM's Voice Type, Dragon's Dictate for the PC and PowerSec for the Apple.
According to Barry Rutter of The Metaphase Design Group, the move towards voice-activated input is "the next frontier in ergonomic and the expanding area of the next millennium."
There is little doubt that alternative input systems will continue to evolve and make inroads into the computing/human interface, but as yet voice systems cannot compete with office noise levels and allow little flexibility.
Monitoring the situation
While keyboards, mice and office furniture are the main culprits in creating muscular problems in users, monitors are the offenders when it comes to affected eyesight. All monitors must comply with several EU standards including TC095, ensuring that radiation emission remain as low as possible.
The new flat-screen monitors are considered better for the eyes than the curved CRTs. Other design enhancements are screens with more pixels for better resolution and faster refresh rate. For colour monitors, small dot pitches are easier on the eyes.
Many monitors now come with anti-glare coating. Dramatic improvement with eye problems can be attained if a larger screen is used, positioned as far away from the user as possible. Compaq's "Cable Management" was devised to keep cables off valuable desk space by making the leads emerge from under the monitor.
A new ergonomically designed chassis, Optiframe S from Dell, is 44% smaller than regular monitors but without losing screen size. "We also have the new Quiet Kit," adds James Griffiths at Dell. "This attaches to the hard drive and helps to reduce noise levels."
Pricing for ergonomically designed monitors ranges from £370 for the smaller model to £1,500 for the large screen.
In his book Visual Ergonomics in the Workplace, Dr Jeffrey Anshel offers many tips on keeping eyes healthy when working with computers. He strongly recommends using as high quality a monitor as possible, using dark characters on a light background and turning down the brightness if "flickering" occurs.
The classic laptop computer goes against almost every ergonomic rule.
"The force, frequency and posture principles of the traditional office should not be forgotten when on the road," advises The Metaphase Design Group's Rutter. "Roll up towels for lumbar support and use phone books as foot rests. In planes, shielding outside light and raising arm rests can help reduce eyestrain and wrist, arm and shoulder discomfort."
It also makes sense to try to swap from a laptop to a desktop computer whenever the user reaches a fixed location. However, with the escalating use of laptops, their design is becoming far better.
"Companies such as Compaq are now really listening to the customer's needs," says Andy Brown, research analyst at IDC. "Its new Armada range is housed in lightweight alloy and the keys are better spaced than most.
Fujitsu's B range is also being designed with ergonomic principles in mind. These companies are moving with the times, but the price tags remain high."
Invest in furniture
"Furniture should be seen as an investment," advises Ergonomic Workstations.
"Adjustable operators' chairs are only one part of a flexible furniture strategy. It is the performance of the computer user that determines the productivity of the information systems and, like an athlete, a poor environment reduces levels of performance."
Choosing the right furniture is an important process in improving the office environment, and specialist centres are full of advice.
"Obviously, the first matter to address is posture. When people come to us they can try out a large range of different chairs and find the one that suits them," says Lisa Quine, director of the Back Store. "All our chairs are fully adjustable with seat sliders and adjustable arms that let the user get right up to the desktop. The idea is that the chair will follow the body, supporting it all the time."
Ergonomically designed chairs cost between £250 and £500 and desks from £174 right up to £1,000 for electrically operated ones.
As regards wrist rests and mouse pads, Quine warns the potential buyer to look out for quality products that are soft enough to cushion the arm but firm enough to give support.
"There are some badly made products on the market," she warns. "It is important to check the quality of material being used, otherwise they could end up doing more harm than good."
A new order
There are many academic studies into ergonomics and computers. Dainoff and Dainoff (1986) ran an early study in which a VDU workstation designed according to commonly accepted ergonomic guidelines was compared with one that deliberately broke most of the rules. Subjects performed tasks involving data entry and editing under realistic conditions. Performance was 25% higher at the ergonomically designed workstations.
Companies such as IBM, ICL, Compaq and Hewlett-Packard are investing in laboratories and test workstations where ordinary people test products for their comfort factor and efficiency and their feedback is used to create better products. IBM's future plans include technologies such as speech recognition and gaze-tracking.
The aim of all this is to make using a computer easier and more natural and to reduce costs. "Nobody is making any radical moves," adds IDC's Andy Brown, "but products are becoming sleeker and are being designed for people, not just for production."
With a workforce that is remaining employed to an older age, good ergonomic design will become even more important. If the study of our interaction with machines can help us get the computers designed around our needs and to raise awareness of how we can help ourselves, then the future may be much more comfortable.
HEALTH AND SAFETY EXECUTIVE
- In 1992, the Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulation came into force as part of a European directive.
Under the legislation, the employer must:
- assess the workstation
- check the environment is safe
- check lights and humidity
- pay for employees' eye tests and glasses.
"Disorders such as tendon and muscular problems are on the increase and the legislation is in place to help the employee," stated an HSE spokesman.
"In the early 1980s nobody had any real idea of the impact on health (of using computers). Employees, as well as employers, need to be educated in this area.
"Doctors do not always recognise work-related limb disorders and this can make things difficult for the worker suffering from a disorder which can be crippling. At HSE we hope to make a change in this area for the good of all by ensuring the right legislation is in place," he added.
SIT UP AND TAKE NOTICE
- Most people are aware of the "proper sitting posture" while working at the computer.
When you lean back and tilt the chair, the disc pressure in the spinal column is reduced. However, this position causes you to reach forward with the arms when using the keyboard and mouse. This usually increases muscle tension, of which you are unaware, in neck, shoulders, back and arms.
For long working hours there is no perfect ergonomic position.
All positions are uncomfortable if held too long, so it is very important to adjust the chair, take frequent breaks and stretch the limbs regularly.
When typing, sit upright with your feet completely on the floor, upper arms hanging down parallel to the body and elbows bent at 90 degrees when fingers touch the keyboard.
When answering the phone, lean back and adjust the chair slightly backwards so that your back is supported by the chair.
Use larger body movements. Stand, stretch, move and look out of the window to relieve the eyes every 15 minutes.
TAKE THE STRAIN
- Repetitive strain injury (RSI) is becoming increasingly known as work-related upper limb disorders (WRULD), as it is felt this better emphasises the nature of the condition.
Four in ten RSI cases are diagnosed as carpal tunnel syndrome, referring to the area from the forearm to the wrist. Most of these cases turn out to be another RSI ailment, but for sufferers of CTS, this condition is not only extremely painful but could leave the sufferer disabled or unable to work.
Doctors advise complete rest but then the worker's employment may be at risk.
Stretching exercises can alleviate the situation, but in extreme cases it may require surgery.
In most cases the medical profession would advocate correct posture techniques and the use of ergonomic products to alleviate the condition, but for some users the latter has been known to make the situation worse.
One London IT professional, who requested anonymity, moved to an ergonomic keyboard after feeling pains in his wrist and hand.
The situation went from bad to worse. He is convinced that the odd position of the palm rest on the right-hand on the new keyboard aggravated the situation. He also felt that the minimal movement required by the trackerball mouse encouraged the muscle stiffness.
Large communities of RSI sufferers have emerged over recent years and created a communication link through the Internet, sharing resources and discoveries on their situations. This can be found on RSI network UK site, which is at www.demon.co.uk/rsi/.
More information on typing injuries can be found at www.tifaq.org.
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