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Work at Home Ergonomics

Monday, April 6, 2020
Margaret Bastick
Work at Home Ergonomics
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With millions of Americans working from home and riding out the worldwide COVID-19 threat, there is a growing need to address workstation ergonomics in the house. There are three work at home scenarios employees may find themselves in:

TRADITIONAL COMPUTER WORKSTATION:

A traditional computer workstation consists of a separate monitor, keyboard, and mouse. These components are placed on a desk approximately 28” to 30” in height; the desk and keyboard are accessed using a chair. Ideally, chairs include height adjustments for the seat pan and arms. Keyboarding is accomplished with elbows supported by armrests. Monitors are positioned, so the head and eyes look straight ahead and slightly downward at the center of the monitor. This helps relieve stress and pressure on vertebrae and intervertebral discs in the neck.

User comfort is the best gauge for proper workstation setup. Ideally, forearms should be at a 90-degree angle to the upper arms, but this may not be comfortable for all or for those whose chair is not furnished with armrests. In these situations, some achieve comfort by moving the keyboard and mouse further away so the arms can rest on the desktop surface. This may also require the monitor to be pushed further away as well.

The height of the chair, if adjustable, should be such that the forearms are approximately parallel to the height of the keyboard. This helps increase the comfort of the upper extremities most impacted by keyboarding activities. If the height of the chair raises feet off of the floor, support the feet by placing a box or other object below the feet.

Good workstation ergonomics is mostly a function of user comfort. If it feels good, do it, even if your adjustments don’t follow the guidelines detailed in these tips. Experiment with different positions, distances, and heights until the workstation is comfortable over extended periods of time.

The image below depicts the proper setup for a traditional, computer workstation:

LAPTOP WORKSTATION:

Many are using a laptop to work at home. Because my wife also works from home, she is using the traditional computer/desk/chair setup, and I am using my laptop on the kitchen island while sitting on a barstool (insert joke here). Some of you may connect your laptop to an external monitor, keyboard, and mouse. If so, follow the tips above and use your laptop the same way as you would a desktop computer.

If you’re like me and only have a laptop, I find the best way to work is to place the laptop on a flat surface with your forearms supported by the surface. The keyboard on most laptops are significantly smaller, and keyboarding on a laptop is easier for many with the arms supported in this manner. Support of the arms using a traditional desktop or laptop computer is critical. A majority of musculoskeletal disorders and injuries involve upper extremities, so provide support of the arms by using a chair equipped with armrests or resting your forearms on a flat surface by moving the keyboard or laptop computer further away.

Mousing is also more difficult on a laptop computer. I purchased my mouse, which helped improve accuracy and productivity. If you use an external mouse, you may want to disable the mouse pad on your laptop. Resting your hands on the laptop when keyboarding can cause unwanted actions by de-activating the embedded mouse pad in your computer settings.

PORTABLE DEVICES:

The third method of communicating is using portable devices, including smartphones or tablets. If you must use a portable device for composing lengthy emails or working on documents or spreadsheets, you will want to invest in an external keyboard. If you use an external keyboard on a phone or laptop, you will want to follow the tips for laptop computers detailed above.

If you don’t have an external keyboard and are limited to a cell phone or tablet, you may want to enable voice to text capabilities on your device, if so equipped. Expect reductions in productivity if your work must be completed on a portable device without an external keyboard.

If you must work for extended periods of time using a portable device, take frequent breaks to relieve eye strain and discomfort. Many devices allow you to increase the size of fonts to make reading fine text easier. Texting for extended periods of time on a portable device may also cause discomfort of the thumbs.

CONCLUSION:

Even though I’d prefer to use my workstation at the office, I found a way I can use my laptop at home without discomfort. I’m more productive and accurate using my office setup, but my keyboarding on the laptop has improved, and the external mouse has helped.

Don’t forget to take frequent breaks and remember to stretch your fingers, hands, shoulders, and neck throughout the day. Staying hydrated can help prevent muscle cramps caused by all physical activity, and if you drink enough, it will force you to get up and take the necessary breaks and stretches needed to stay comfortable. Stay well as we all navigate through this most unusual situation.

Gary Glader leads a team of 14 safety professionals who provide safety services to clients involved in manufacturing, construction, transportation, and public entity operations.

Material posted on this website is for informational purposes only and does not constitute a legal opinion or medical advice. Contact your legal representative or medical professional for information specific to your legal or medical needs.

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