Mind your back! Your mobile tech can hurt you

The history of computerisation shows that people can be harmed by their company’s IT systems, but today, laptops and tablets are being adopted without any apparent consideration for their ergonomic effects. The health and safety costs of a careless approach could ultimately outweigh the savings.
Written by Jack Schofield, Contributor

What’s the difference between me and most of technology’s top CEOs? They have far more money, of course, but surprisingly often, they have inferior working conditions. I don’t mean the music and the coffee. Many of Silicon Valley’s finest work with equipment that wouldn’t meet the UK’s basic health and safety regulations.

Many British companies have learned from bitter experience that if you want to keep staff productively employed for long periods then you have to pay attention to their computer workstations. This includes ergonomic considerations such as adjustable chair and screen heights, ergonomic keyboards, footrests, and sometimes enforced screen breaks. It’s not necessarily expensive to do these things, and they help to keep your staff out of hospital and your company out of court.

When the Guardian newspaper was computerised a couple of decades ago, management took this stuff seriously. We even had an ergonomics expert, the excellent Tom Stewart, who walked round the office spotting people with potentially injurious work habits such as, for example, holding a phone with one shoulder while typing with two hands. Yes, that was me. I got a telling off and a microphone headset.

How much ergonomic expertise and care goes into kitting out the people who run today’s hot companies? As close to zero as makes no apparent difference, to judge by the photos available. Overpriced ergonomic chairs are common enough, because they’re a fashion item, but otherwise, the process usually goes: (1) find an Apple Store and (2) buy a laptop.

This is unfortunate because laptops have terrible ergonomics. They encourage hunched-over typing positions that lead to back, shoulder and arm pains, and long term users can expect to find it increasingly difficult to straighten their upper spines. Physiotherapy is painful but it helps. Otherwise, it’s down to watching your posture and doing regular neck exercises, as I know from previous experience.

If you can’t use a desktop PC, of course, there are more ergonomic ways to use laptops. One of the simplest is to put the laptop on a riser, which lifts the screen, while typing on an external keyboard. The problem is that most people don’t see the need … until it’s too late.

The interesting question today is whether tablets are going to be as harmful as laptops, or better, or worse. Early research such as the study published recently in Work: A Journal of Prevention, Assessment, and Rehabilitation (PDF) shows a typical head out/look down posture that puts far more stress on the neck muscles than using a traditional desktop PC. However, any sensible person who does serious work on a tablet is going to use an external keyboard, and this could make a tablet safer than a laptop.

Tablets may also be more like books. The human body has problems with repetition, and over-use can lead to RSI (repetitive strain injury) and carpal tunnel syndrome in typists, writer’s cramp, tennis elbow, housemaid’s knee, Nintendo thumb and so on, but “reading injuries” are relatively rare. This is partly because readers frequently change their position, they hold their books and papers in different ways, carry them from room to room, and so on. Will people use tablets in a similar variety of ways? If so, that should also help.

When companies started computerising the workforce with mainframes, minicomputers and eventually PCs, there was some serious research into the effects of VDU work, and a lot of argument about the outcomes. Mobilising the workforce with tablets and laptops is being done, it seems to me, with an almost complete lack of interest in the ergonomic effects, whether from ignorance or just a failure in the duty of care.

The health and safety costs of a careless approach could ultimately outweigh the savings.


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