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Time to check your computer health

01 Jul 2010

Did you do a lot of work on your computer today? If so, how do you feel? Any soreness, numbness, tingling in the hands and arms? These are all indicators that your work habits, if not your computer hardware, might need some attention.
ACC pays out $28 million a year for injuries incurred through OOS (occupational overuse syndrome). As a small business employer, you’re unlikely to have someone in your office dedicated to monitoring employee health and fitness, so the responsibility for ensuring your staff are working comfortably is likely to fall to you.
A good place to start is your own workstation. If your mouse, keyboard and chair aren’t comfortable, you’re at risk of developing lower back pain or carpal tunnel syndrome (soreness in the wrist and forearm).
Changes in the way we use computers have shifted the physical stress, explains Dan Odell, a design ergonomist and user researcher at Microsoft. “Input has moved from text-based computer entry to graphical entry,” he told Start-Up, “so nowadays we find people use the mouse three times as much as they use the keyboard.”
Pushing a mouse around exerts a different sort of physical strain from tapping a keyboard: there’s more neck-and-shoulder pain being felt these days than hand-and-arm. The telltale signs of this type of OOS tend to crop up in strange ways; for instance, you might wake up in the middle of the night and notice that your arm is numb. This, or a tingling sensation, can indicate that eight hours of computer work have taken their toll. Odell has personal experience of this, and it prompted him to switch his mechanical engineering skills from designing exercise equipment to ergonomics.
“Once you’re seeing those types of things, it’s really important to address them because it can get much worse from there,” he said. “Better still, if you have a little bit of knowledge upfront you can do things to prevent having an issue.”
Taking regular breaks and doing stretching exercises can help; a guide for this is available at tinyurl. com/23hqp4v (Adobe Reader required). More information for business managers and employees is at www.habitatwork.co.nz
Microsoft is now producing ergonomic mice and keyboards that are more comfortable to use and put less strain on the user. The trick usually is to get people to use them, in combination with changing their work habits, their desk posture, and so on. People used to a straight keyboard, for instance, will find a split keyboard strange at first, but making the adjustment will benefit them in the long run.
“The ultimate risk is, you may lose your ability to work with a computer, and that’s devastating,” said Odell. “You need to address these problems early.”
Microsoft has more information about healthy computing at tinyurl.com/299xlt6

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