Have you suffered pains in the shoulder girdle and the lower back while working on a computer? Chances are that these pains are due to a lack of support for your forearms during typing.
Ergonomics experts differ in regard to this issue and their approaches fall into several categories.
The purpose of this post is to present the advantages and disadvantages of the various approaches in an objective way, and let each one of you decide which approach is most suitable for him or her.
1. Floating – the “pianist” approach – The palms float over the keyboard: This approach argues that there’s no need to support the forearms, as the shoulders should be relaxed and simulate piano playing. The keyboard is located in the front part of the table and the mouse is in line with the keyboard.
Advantages – There’s no need to put the forearms on the chair’s armrests, on the table or on a padded surface. The relaxation is a product of gravitation and it enables the joints to be free of load.
Disadvantages – A) The keyboard has to be situated in a very low location, otherwise the shoulders cannot relax. B) The relaxed shoulders posture requires very high awareness. C) A low keyboard creates a disturbance to the legs.
2. Using the table to support the forearms – This approach recommends putting the forearms on the table, while locating the keyboard on the back part of the table and the mouse in line with the keyboard.
Advantages – A) When the user puts his or her forearms on a wide surface, his or her shoulders girdles are fully supported and a neutral posture of the palms becomes natural. B) Users can adjust themselves to this method simply and easily. C) The method is particularly suitable for corner tables and / or tables with an ergonomic niche.
Disadvantages – A) Laying the forearms on narrow tables (less than 60cm in depth) is impossible. B) A sharp table rim might strongly disturb the ability to properly lay the forearms on the table. C) In straight tables, laying the forearms forces the user to extend the forearms further, an extension which creates a certain load on the shoulders girdles. D. In order to lay the forearms on the table, the user must sit in the right height, to ensure the shoulders are relaxed. The user will also have to move with the chair closer to the table, which sometimes results in the armrests bumping into the table. E. Laying the forearms on a hard surface generates a feeling of discomfort and sometime results in an inflammation in the elbow area.
3. Supporting the forearms on the chair’s armrests – In this method, the forearms are laid over the chair’s armrests, the keyboard is located near the table rim and the mouse is in line with the keyboard.
Advantages – A) Correct anatomical posture of the shoulders. B) The method is suitable for straight tables with narrow depth.
Disadvantages – A) In case the chair’s armrests are not suitable to the width of the shoulders, it is impossible to implement this method during typing. B) In case the armrests are narrow, not adjustable and not padded, this method cannot be implemented.
4. Laying the forearms on a padded surface which connects to the table – In this method, the forearms are laid on a padded surface with an ergonomic niche which is located on the table. The keyboard is located in the front part of the table and the mouse is in line with the keyboard.
Advantages – A) Laying the forearms on a padded surface is pleasant and neutralizes pressure points. B) The round shape of the surface leads to a relaxed and optimal posture of the shoulders. C) The padded surface creates a unified and correct sitting standard. D) The size of the surface enables every user to find the typing position which is most suitable for his or her body and shoulders width. E) There is no need to move with the chair under the table, and have the armrests bump into the table. F) This method is very suitable for people with a big belly or pregnant women. G) The method is very suitable for typing tasks. H) Very suitable for narrow tables. I) The method enables users to upgrade non-ergonomic environments. J) The board can be delivered from one table to another in an easy way.
Disadvantages – A) The method forces the user to sit in a high position in order to create a relaxed shoulders posture (which sometimes requires the use of a foot rest). B) The surface on the table might disturb PC users who use folders and paper documents on a frequent basis.
Deciding on the desired approach depends on the work surface, the type of work, the type of the ergonomic accessories in the work environment and the computer user’s physical characteristics.
Nevertheless, every approach requires a correct choice in each one of the following aspects: the location of the keyboard and the mouse, the height of the sitting position, the selection of the ergonomic accessories for the workstation and the guidance of an ergonomic consultant.
In practice, work places do not allow computer users to decide on the suitable approach, due to two main reasons: A) Lack of ergonomic awareness and guidance. B) Standard equipment which has been selected in a random way, without any ergonomic planning.
My hope is that at least home PC users will know how to implement the right choice and that decision makers in organizations will consult an ergonomic advisor when they plan the work environment.
Combining ergonomic planning with the right guidance and equipment will not only save the organization unnecessary expenses on unsuitable equipment. The organization will eventually benefit from a satisfied worker, who is more productive and is less susceptible to orthopedic injuries.
An organization which will be prudent enough to integrate ergonomic aspects into its considerations will sharply reduce instances of workers’ absence as a result of orthopedic injuries, such as lower back pains, neck sprains, and inflammations in the palms. The overall economic calculation will drive the organization to understand the very short time frame in which the initial cost of ergonomics returns itself and the fact that in the long run, ergonomics saves significant amount of money for the organization and strengthens its image in the eyes of employees and customers alike.
In many ergonomic consultations, the very first sentence I hear from employees is: “my chair is so uncomfortable! Could it be replaced?” Or – “I’m used to sitting this way and I don’t have any pains”.
Do these sentences reflect a real problem, or are they uttered as a result of thought patterns we have grown accustomed to?
Usually I find that most complaints reflect a lack of basic knowledge of how to adjust the seat properly, how high or how far away from the table to sit and where to place the hands. In my experience, most employees use the chair just as it was when they received it, with no attempt to change the backrest angle or height, the seat depth, or even the seat height.
Quite often I come across tall people sitting on a chair that fits shorter people and vice versa.
Ergonomic engineers invest a lot of time, thought and effort in designing a chair with a variety of adjustment options that will be easy to operate. Unluckily, in reality many people are simply too afraid to try and manipulate the chair, and even if they do make adjustments, they do not always perform them properly.
I have often wondered about the reason for that. Don’t people listen to what their own bodies tell them? What type and level of pain will cause them to take action? Is it the workplace pressure to fulfill the task at hand that does not allow people to devote a minute of their time to the chair they sit on? Are people deterred by their fear of what they perceive as a challenging technical feat? Are they afraid that even if they do adjust their chair it will make no difference? Could it perhaps be that this lack of attention is only the outcome of a lack of awareness?
What is an ergonomic chair?
Before you purchase a chair touted to be ergonomic, it is worthwhile to map your real needs and make sure this is the right chair for you.
These are the parameters you should take into account:
a. The size of the chair VS the size of the user (remember, ergonomic means adjusted for the user!);
b. Chair height VS desk height. The right proportion should allow for a correct sitting posture that does not put a load on the shoulders.
c. The number of people that will be using the chair. For multiple users, it is recommended to purchase a chair with a variety of adjusting options, in order to allow for optimal fitting to each user.
d. The chair’s seat should be covered with a comfortable, non slip, absorbing fabric that prevents slipping or sweating. The chair should be equipped with an additional mechanism for adjusting the seat’s depth.
e. The backrest must have a mechanism that allows for adjusting it at different angles (nowadays, the recommended angle between the seat and back rest is 110 degrees).
In addition, it’s recommended to make sure that the chair backrest’s height can also be adjusted, to allow for maximum support of the lower back at the concave depression (back lordosis).
f. The armrests must be adjustable for height, width, sliding back and forth as well as shifting inside. If your desk is ergonomic, you do not use the armrests but place your forearms on the desk (the armrests are just that – there to be used mainly when you’re resting).
g. The chair’s height – should be adjusted both to the user’s height and to the desk, so you will feel that when you’re placing your forearms on the ergonomic desk, your shoulders and neck can be relaxed.
Therefore, it is important to choose a chair that includes a simple mechanism allowing for easy lifting and lowering of the chair.
h. Synchronizing mechanism – keeps the sitting posture optimal while changing the load on the back vertebrae.
i. Rocking mode – keeps the back in motion and alleviates the pressure exerted on the vertebrae by prolonged sitting. It is recommended to occasionally take a break at work and give the back some rest through a rocking movement.
When have you last heard of employees going on a strike or mobilizing workers unions solely to protest against the ergonomic conditions of their employment?
That’s a pretty rare situation, to say the least.
Well. If there are no strikes and no sanctions, does it follow that the ergonomic working conditions are all excellent? I don’t think so.
We’ve have all seen some horrific working environments, with narrow and wobbly desks, old and broken chairs, bad lighting, crowded spaces etc.
And just to be clear, those are modern urban offices I am talking about, not sweatshops or third worlds factories in remote locations.
I’m sure we’ve all heard by now of employees, who spend most of their working hours in front of a computer, complaining about discomfort, wrist pains and disk hernias.
This is a well known, quite widespread phenomenon, and yet employers are not rushing to search for the aid of the nearest ergonomic consultant. When offering my services to employers, I’m often confronted with the reaction: No thanks, we’re very concerned and proactive regarding our workers health and comfort, see? We’ve just purchased gel pads for their keyboards and mice.
Does this reaction teach us anything? Yes. Clearly, it shows that employers tend to ease their consciences or mollify their employees’ complaints with a simple ergonomic toy. Does this toy solve the employee’s problem? Probably not, but it does buy the employer some additional quiet time.
Would having the employees listen to a lecture on ergonomics once every couple of years help them? Perhaps it would help them a bit, but it would sure help the employer much more.
Good ergonomic consulting starts with a functional ergonomic mapping of the organization, getting an exact understanding of employee’s needs followed by personal planning and guidance for each employee at his personal workstation, including fitting the proper ergonomic equipment.
Are there any employers who have embraced this concept? Yes, of course, but they are still a minority. Most employers are still in the stage of putting out fires, only trying to solve specific personal problems when an employee complains loudly enough.
When employers do invest seriously in ergonomics, is it because the employee’s interest is of paramount importance for them?
Every business’s primary goal is to make profits. Organizations that realize how ergonomics assistance would greatly improve their employees’ performance, actually understand that in the long run, they gain happy, contributing employees with better performance levels, who take fewer sick leave days.
Correct ergonomic thought should take into consideration that an investment in ergonomics will not only repay itself but bring the company monetary gain as well.
Don’t think of ergonomics as being a manner of coddling the employee, or being just a part of HR welfare. Think of it as a method that enables the employer to increase company’s profit.
When employers will understand that there’s money to be made, they will invest in ergonomics. That’s a no brainer.
As an independent ergonomic counselor offering my services to high tech companies, I often wonder – who would be the right person to meet at the organization in order to create a serious and effective ergonomic program?
My experience tells me that in each organization, the correct answer will be different.
The crucial person or function to approach could be located at: Human Resources, Staff Welfare, Operations or Acquisition management, R&D Department, or it could be any of the organization’s vice presidents: Safety, IT, Administration, or any departmental Manager.
One of the main obstacles in promoting ergonomics in organizations is that the employees themselves may lack ergonomic awareness. They do not put any pressure on the organization or ask emphatically enough for ergonomic consulting services. After all, not all employees are aware of the causal connection between working environment and bodily pains.
It’s not always easy to make the connection between work and pain. The discomfort and pains suffered by computer users usually develop gradually and do not force the users to stop working immediately. The discomfort turns into chronic pain that the employees learn to live with, suffering quietly and hoping for the best.
Even when employees are well aware of the situation, some of them might hesitate to complain of discomfort and pains they feel at their daily work out of fear of being fired, or being regarded by the organization as trouble makers.
Employers sometimes take advantage of this ignorance or fear, and do nothing to raise awareness. After all, why create problems where you have industrial peace? So they sort of “let sleeping dogs lay”. The situation is the worst in organizations where employees’ turnover is high and the employer has no incentive to improve working conditions.
But ending on a positive note – we see more and more organizations that are open minded towards ergonomics, being well aware of its importance. Those organizations do not hesitate to invest substantial amounts in order to create the right working environment.
As I’ve noted in previous posts, organizations are not promoting ergonomics solely for the employee’s interest. They understand that in the long run, investment in ergonomics has a very high ROI.
For one good example I can give the Israeli Low department that after a long period of consultation, trial period and ROI calculation bought for all its clerics an innovative forearm support board the ergocloud.
What turns a computer mouse into an “ergonomic” accessory?
What are the criteria for an ergonomic mouse?
When purchasing a new mouse, how can we be certain that the mouse touted to be ergonomic does indeed comply with ergonomic criteria?
Does any mice manufacturer have the right to attach the word “ergonomic” to their products?
And is an ergonomic mouse really better than a regular mouse? That is, would an ergonomic mouse helps in preventing carpal tunnel syndrome and inflammations of the wrist?
And last but not least, given the huge assortment of ergonomic mouse devices on the market, how do we know which would be the best and the most appropriate for us?
In order to solve some of these questions, we would first need to determine what exactly is an ergonomic mouse, and what functions are not included in the ergonomic definition.
You might be surprised to know, but the design process of any product involves certain ergonomic considerations.
That being so, basically any product can be called “ergonomic”.
Confused? So am I, but the answer is simple – ergonomic means “suited to the user”. That’s right – Suited to You. That’s the greatest secret of ergonomics.
For example: a small handed girl working with an ergonomic mouse significantly big for her hand or a large man working with a smallish ergonomic mouse will feel very uncomfortable, even though they’re using a mouse that supposedly is ergonomic. An accountant using an extremely narrow or cluttered desk, who chooses to use a large mouse that can hardly be moved on such a desk, will also feel discomfort.
The obvious conclusion is: the mouse should be chosen first and foremost according to body size, work needs and desk format.
Having chosen the ergonomic mouse that fits us we have to ask – would that mouse itself prevent wrist pain?
The answer depends on how we sit and the posture of our hand on the desk.
For example: if we sit too low in respect to our desk, we will not be able to place our hand correctly on the desk, and no ergonomic mouse can or will help us. Or if due to the table structure or the multitude of devices placed on the desk (laptop, telephone, folders… you name it) there is not enough free space to place our wrist, we will not be able to achieve the correct hand posture to benefit from the ergonomic mouse.
So, we understood that we need to choose a mouse that is appropriate to our structure and needs, and have arranged our sitting position and desk to enable us to create the right arm and hand position. The question still remains: Should we buy a mouse defined as ergonomic or can we be satisfied with a simple mouse?
The answer is not that simple. Our best advice would be to try out several mouse devices for a period of time, to feel if there’s any change. I believe some of the ergonomic mouse devices sold today have a structure that definitely lessens the pressure on the hand. Those are worth trying first.
One of the first things I have noticed as an ergonomic advisor was the lack of uniformity and total absence of any standardization of the working environments at offices and working places.
This is mainly evident when you look at the equipment being used – a haphazard mix of old and new appliances, furniture items and ergonomic equipment. In many offices you can find a medley of different desks and chairs even in a single working space.
How would such a situation be created? There are a ton of different reasons.
For example, many working places might replace malfunctioning or broken equipment, but anything that is still functional gets left as it was.
Another reason could be replacing a specific item or equipment, only for those employees who used some sort of leverage to get their equipment renewed. And sometimes, it’s all about ranks – new and improved equipment is bought for the higher rank workers of the organization, but not for the lower ranks.
Additional reasons might be different decisions reached by different purchasing officers, a decision made by the operational vice president, a change in the budget allocated to acquisition, etc.
What is more clear is that this lack of uniformity can and does create an array of problems:
- Those workers left to work with outdated equipment suffer discomfort and pains;
- Each working station requires different ergonomic accessories (which ofcourse entails a higher monetary expenditure);
- It is impossible to offer a uniform ergonomic guidance to all workers;
- Planning the arrangement of different work stations in one working space is complex and unecessarily problematic;
- It is a situation which could create resentment among workers and lead to demands for ergonomic equipment;
- And of course this is a situation which could damage the organization’s public image.
Using solid ergonomic advise and planning when getting ready to purchase ergonomic equipment in the early stages of building work stations is a critical step. Good ergonomic advice will allow the organization to create a healthy, ergonomic and uniform work environment.