First, Buy a Good Chair; It Could Cost
Hundreds, but May Keep Doctor Away
By ALBERT R. KARR
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
In far too many cases, unfriendly home offices are a body ache waiting to happen.
A cast-off chair with bad support paired with a computer mouse placed on the desk can take a physical toll over time. Yet plenty of home offices are makeshift.
Experts in ergonomics — techniques for adapting the work environment to the human body — say that anybody spending long hours at the home computer should follow the same rules advised for any office building filled with desk workers: Get the right equipment and use it properly.
“The effects of poor posture are really insidious. They happen over long periods of time, and you may not notice them for months,” says Robert DeSiervo, director of professional affairs for the American Society of Safety Engineers, a workplace- safety and -health group.
Constant use of ergonomically deficient equipment, or improper use of good gear, can produce carpal tunnel syndrome, a disorder of the hand; back pain; spine and neck problems; aching shoulders; sore elbows; eyestrain; and other problems.
Inadequate, unfriendly home offices are becoming a bigger issue, as the number of people working from home grows, whether because of telecommuting or entrepreneurial urges. According to a survey for the International Telework Association and Council issued early in September, telecommuters number 23.5 million, double the total six years ago, and self-employed home workers number 23.4 million, up from 18.3 million in 1997.
Achieving proper ergonomics at home is also complicated by the fact that more than one person may use the same computer. You don’t want to visit carpal tunnel or other disorders on your spouse or your children, either. So make sure the space works for everybody who needs it.
Buying a good ergonomic chair is the first and most important step in creating or improving your home office ergonomically. A good chair can often work well with a less-than-perfect desk. Paying several hundred dollars for the right chair is worth the money in comfort alone and could save you money in medical bills later.
“People who make their living sitting on their butts need to spend money on a good adjustable chair,” says Carter Kerk, associate professor of industrial engineering at the South Dakota School of Mines, who also heads the National Advisory Committee on Ergonomics for the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
If you are a telecommuter, your employer ought to see the value in providing you with proper gear.
The chair, preferably with a sturdy, five-legged base and casters that roll easily, should be adjustable in several ways. You should be able to adjust for height to ensure that your line of vision is about even with the top of the computer-monitor screen to two inches above it. Armrests should be adjustable, to keep your forearms horizontal while using the keyboard, and your elbows should be kept close to your torso.
Adjust the chair also so that your feet are comfortably on the floor (or on a footrest, if you are short). The backrest, lumbar support and seat pan should be independently adjustable, so that you can sometimes recline slightly, 10 to 15 degrees, to match the natural curve of the spine, rather than always sitting upright or — even worse — hunched forward. Make sure good support is provided for your lumbar region, or lower back.
Your thighs should be parallel to the floor or slope slightly away from your hips, if you can do that and still keep your feet flat on the floor or on a footrest.
Overall, the goal is maintaining a neutral posture, one that feels comfortable and minimizes strain on your body’s muscles, nerves, tendons and blood system.
Using equipment correctly is crucial, too. You can undo the benefits of the best ergonomics with incorrect behavior, such as hunching forward, cradling your phone on your shoulder or reaching too far away to type or dial.
“You want to do as much as possible within your shoulder-to-shoulder range, without having to reach,” adds Alan Hedge, professor of ergonomics at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.
If you have a laptop, use it sparingly. A laptop by design violates ergonomic precepts — it requires incorrect posture to use the keyboard and monitor together, because they are too close and too low. It is best to use a separate keyboard or monitor, or both, with the laptop at the office or at home, and when you cannot do that on the road, at least support your laptop and your arms with a pillow or seat cushion, if possible.
Keep in mind that just because something is labeled “ergonomic” doesn’t make it useful. It may not be ergonomic at all, or it may suit only certain users; a prime feature of ergonomic furniture and devices is adjustability. Curved desks require more reaching, because they limit your ability to swivel the chair. Keyboards, mouses and staplers designed for large or small hands are good for some people, not for others. Keyboards split down the middle, with each half rotated outward at the “ZXCVB” base of the keyboard may work well for broad-shouldered users, but poorly for smaller or hunt-and-peck typists.
And if you are really serious about getting things right, try a consultation with a certified professional ergonomist, or C.P.E.
Beyond the home-office chair, these are some basics for buying and using computer-related equipment:
A height-adjustable desk, usually about 26 to 30 inches above the floor and easily fittable with the right keyboard and mouse tray, is ideal, but you may have to use the desk or other work surface that is available in your home workroom. Using an adjustable chair and fitting your other computer-related gear to the desk then becomes imperative.
Place the keyboard at a height and distance that keeps your elbows comfortably by your sides. The keyboard should be flat, or tilted slightly downward away from you, to help you keep your lower arms, wrists and hands in a straight line. Your hands should be essentially flat, with no twisting of wrists to the side, upward or downward. A keyboard tray fitted to the underside of the desk top is useful. Don’t rest your palms on the keyboard rest pad while typing — do that only between typing stints — and the rest pad should be padded, but not spongy. Don’t rest your wrists on the pads, or on any hard or sharp edges, because that puts pressure on the wrist’s medial nerve. Your thighs should be comfortably clear of the bottom of the keyboard tray.
Use one that is large enough so that your hand fits comfortably over it, with a mouse tray fitted to the side of the keyboard, to avoid constant reaching to use it. Don’t leave your hand on the mouse when you aren’t using it. If you are right-handed and begin to have discomfort in your right hand, switch the mouse to the left side of the keyboard and use it left-handed, and vice versa. Some ergonomics experts reduce mousing by using function keys instead, whenever possible.
Position the monitor at arm’s length — somewhere in the range of 18 to 30 inches — with the top of the view screen even with your line of vision, or slightly below it, to avoid straining your neck when you turn your head to look upward.
“What you don’t want to be is a bobble head,” says Lawrence Schulze, an associate professor of ergonomics; at the University of Houston, who is also director of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health’s worker-safety and ergonomics program. If you wear bifocal glasses, the monitor may have to be still lower, to prevent turning your head upward. Or you may need to buy trifocals or computer glasses, so you can work from the right distance and keep the monitor at a proper height. A flat monitor held by a movable arm is easily placed in the right position.
Copyholders should be as close to the monitor as possible, so you don’t have to keep twisting your neck back and forth.
Reduce harmful glare by tilting the monitor slightly toward you, and, if possible, by placing it at a right angle to the window, rather than in front of it. Keeping the blinds closed is another option. Overhead light shouldn’t end up bouncing off walls, contributing to glare on the screen. Use an antiglare screen filter when needed.
And reduce strain on your body and eyestrain by looking away from the screen and blinking, and changing body positions from time to time, taking frequent “micro” breaks (one or two minutes, resting your hands and eyes), and 15-minute breaks every hour or two, doing stretch exercises, getting up and walking around or doing some other chore.
Copyright 2003 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved