Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 150 / MARCH 1993 / PAGE S1

How to optimize your computer workplace. (Compute's Getting Started with Computers, Health, & the Environment)

For years, people have been working at computers and suffering a variety of unusual health problems without making the connections between the kind of work they do and the kind of pain they feel. It took a plague of eye, hand, back, and emotional disorders in the 1980s among a high-paid, highly literate group--newspaper editors spending long hours editing text at VDTs--to focus attention on the health hazards of computing. It turns out that computing may actually be bad for your health, and bad for business, too. Treating work-related neck and back pain cost U.S. businesses $80 billion in 1992, and that's just one aspect of the problem.

Flexible beings that we are, we tend to adapt ourselves to the work conditions imposed by computers, rather than fashion workstations to meet the needs of our bodies. We strain our eyes to squint at screen glare, strain our necks and backs to work in unnatural positions for long hours, and suffer new kinds of hand injuries caused by the repetitive motions that computing requires. Meanwhile, our PCs emit potentially dangerous forms of electromagnetic radiation whose long-term health effects are not yet understood.

Fortunately, many of the negative health effects of computing can be avoided or reduced with relatively simple measures. Here are some suggestions.

PC Ergonomics

Ergonomics is the study of people in relation to their working environment, and more particularly the study of how to design work environments that promote comfortable, safe, and healthful work. Poorly designed workstations lead directly to unnecessary body strains and stresses, as you probably already know if you do serious, day-to-day computing. Often you can correct ergonomic problems simply by changing your computing habits or by rearranging your components, but you may also have to consider replacing uncomfortable furniture. The most important thing is to make your workstation fit you, not the other way round.

* First, find the right posture. Sit erect in a supportive chair, with your arms and shoulders relaxed and your upper arms hanging down alongside your chest. Your forearms should be angled slightly down as you type, and the top of the monitor should be in line with your eyes, so you look slightly downward at the center of the screen. Your thighs should be parallel to the floor, and your feet should be planted comfortably on the floor or on a footrest.

* Next, get the right furniture. You'll probably find that your desk and chair won't let you assume the optimal posture described above. For example, most desks are too high for comfortable typing or mousing--the typical desk is 30 inches high, about 4 inches too high for typing--so you may have to invest in a desk with a typing shelf, or install one on your current desk.

Likewise, many of us sit in uncomfortable chairs that can't be adjusted for height or tilt. An adjustable, supportive office chair is worth every penny you spend on it. Well-made ergonomic computer furniture is available from companies such as Anthro, ErgoSource, and ScanCo.

* Finally, step back and look at your entire work area. Is everything easy to reach? Rearrange shelves and storage areas so that you don't have to strain your back reaching for needed materials. Use a copy holder positioned next to the screen so that you don't have to look down at your desk to read copy as you type. Make sure you have room behind your desk to move your chair back and stretch.

Dealing with Stresses and Strains

Even with a well-designed work area and a good posture, you may not be able to avoid all the stresses and strains of computing. But you can help yourself by following these rules:

* Take regular breaks to reduce the chance that you'll damage yourself by the constant repetitive motions of computing. Every hour or so, get up from your PC and stretch. (Stretches geared specifically to computer users can be found in the book, Stretching, by Bob and Jean Anderson.) There's even software to remind you to take a break. Utility programs from PM Ware and RAN Enterprises pop up a screen message at break times and also offer online ergonomic help.

* Reduce eyestrain by adjusting the lighting conditions in your office and on your screen. Turn your monitor so it doesn't reflect glare and reflections into your eyes.

A glass non-glare screen, such as those made by Curtis, can help. Make sure that you have the right balance between the ambient lighting in your office and the illumination on your screen. The ratio between ambient lighting and average screen illumination should be about 1 to 3. Also, the light areas of your display should be no more than ten times brighter than the darkest areas, whether you use a screen that's primarily dark (as in DOS) or bright (as in Windows). Many people say that dark screens are somewhat easier on the eyes.

* Don't ignore carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS), the most common PC-related repetitive strain injury (RSI). CTS is a painful inflammation of nerves in the wrist and hand caused by the unnatural strain of typing. If untreated, it can lead to loss of motor control and severe pain that may require surgery to correct.

If you feel numbness or shooting pains in your hand, wrist, or forearm, stop typing immediately. Stretch your hand gently and keep away from the keyboard for an hour or more.

Check the ergonomics of your typing setup and make sure the keyboard is low enough that your hand isn't flexed upwards as you type. When you do go back to typing, take regular breaks as recommended above. Selfcare is one company that sells wrist braces and other aids to reduce the pain of CTS and the strain of typing.

* If you're in pain, get medical attention. Don't wait until problems get so bad that you need surgery or other extreme measures. And don't let people tell you it's all in your head. PC-related problems are real and can be treated.

What to Do About Monitor Emissions

Inside every conventional computer monitor is a cathode-ray tube, or CRT, containing scanning electronics, an electron gun, and high-powered magnets to control the beam of electrons that creates the image you see on the screen. Among the several types of electromagnetic radiation emitted by operating CRTs are extremely low-frequency (ELF) magnetic fields. Some researchers fear that these invisible fields, which are emitted by many types of electrical and electronic equipment as well as monitors, may cause serious health problems for people exposed to them.

Various studies by reputable researchers, beginning with a 1979 study by Colorado epidemiologist Nancy Wertheimer and recently confirmed by a Swedish study in the fall of 1992, have produced evidence that low-frequency fields from power lines cause a higher-than-average rate of leukemia among neighborhood children and power-line workers.

ELF fields from PC monitors are of particular concern because PCs are used everywhere, and people sit in front of them for hours at a time. Several studies have attempted to determine the health effects of CRT emissions on computer workers, with mixed results. A 1988 Kaiser Permanente study found a correlation between computer work and miscarriages, while a 1991 study by National Institute of Science and Health did not.

More than one hundred new studies are underway right now that may settle the matter. But while you wait, you should take reasonable steps to reduce your exposure to electromagnetic emissions from PCs--especially if you're pregnant or trying to become pregnant.

* Keep back from the monitor. The farther away you are from the monitor, the weaker the ELF field. Distances of two feet from the front of the monitor and four feet from the sides and back should be adequate.

* Turn off equipment you're not using. No ELF fields are emitted by monitors that aren't on.

* If you're planning to buy a new monitor, choose one that conforms to the low-radiation MPR 2 emissions standards set by the Swedish National Board for Measurement and Testing. Many new monitors made by IBM, NEC, Sony, and other manufacturers meet this standard. LCD displays, like those in notebook PCs, emit no ELF radiation at all.

* Consider external radiation shielding for an older monitor. Most shields fit over your monitor screen and block some, though not all, emissions. Shields are made by several manufacturers, including NoRad and Safe Technologies.