Take a Break Before ‘IT’ Breaks You – Part I
Ergonomics in the IT Industry
Need for Ergonomics
Ergonomics is a branch of science which grew out of the need to better accommodate military personnel, during World War II. It is ironic that what was developed as a tool to make fighting more efficient is now the preferred technique for preventing musculoskeletal injuries in the workplace. As an interdisciplinary science, ergonomics draws its knowledge from several main tributaries like Engineering, Mathematics, Medical Sciences,Occupational Biomechanics, Behavioral Sciences, etc. The practice of ergonomics began with the collection and use of anthropometric data. (Anthropometry is a branch of anthropology which deals with the measurement of human body.) These data combined with observations were used to estimate the ‘goodness of fit’ between the equipment and the personnel. Early ergonomists were concerned with accommodating variously sized individuals. As performance requirements became more critical, size considerations were expanded to encompass strength, reach, vision, cardiovascular capabilities, cognition, mission survivability and cumulative musculoskeletal injury.
ERGONOMICS IN THE IT INDUSTRY
Even though the manufacturing and engineering industry have embraced ergonomics a long time back, the IT industry is yet to give it a serious consideration. With the number of computers, computer related jobs and the people who uses computers increasing at a rapid pace, it is high time that we give serious thought to the ergonomical aspects of the computer professional’s workplace. Ergonomics disorders are the most rapidly growing category of work related illness in the IT field also. Those disorders associated with repeated trauma (Repetitive Stress Injury) have tripled since 1984, and statistics from the various studies conducted world wide have shown that the incidence of these injuries has risen from 18% in 1982 to 55% in 1992.
NEED FOR ERGONOMICS
If stress factors in the workplace are reduced and operator comfort is enhanced, then it is very likely that workplace and work-related injuries will be reduced. Physical and cognitive work involves the interaction between humans and machines. The elements of the human-machine system are: human, interface, machine and environment. Whenever these four elements are in harmony, the injury potential is minimized, if not eliminated. Or, in other words, the human capabilities should match the task at hand. Any mismatches or poor fits are potential candidates for trouble.
In order to avoid or at least minimize the dangers of the ergonomic disorders every organization should have an ergonomic policy. The purpose of this policy is to protect the employees from injuries caused by computer usage. This can be accomplished by implementing ergonomic practices that will prevent such injuries. This policy should apply to all employees working at or around computer stations–and with other office related equipment.
The scope of this policy encompasses all people who work with computers. The adoption of this policy and implementation of the guidelines will optimize employee health and safety, maximize comfort at work, enhance productivity and morale in the workplace. To achieve these goals, the people should be given training and made aware of the following issues/areas:
- Musculoskeletal conditions caused by awkward posture and poor body alignment
- Eye strain/headaches brought on by extended computer use
- Stress related health concerns and perceptions occurring in areas of high density computer use
Improvement of general working conditions will reasonably accommodate employees with an average but ergonomically correct computer workstation. To eliminate exposing the employees to risk of injury or discomfort, the employer should provide:
- Modified worksite equipment as needed to decrease awkward posture and poor body alignment (i.e., provide comfortable seating options, wrist rests, footrests, lowered keyboard heights, copyholders)
- Accommodations to relieve visual stress (i.e., comfortable overhead and task lighting, anti-glare screens)
- Means to reduce stress related health concerns and perceptions (i.e., reduce noise, provide comfortable room temperature)
An average software professional spends more than one third of his day in front of the computer terminal. Even though, he is not doing any heavy physical work, he is susceptible to many injuries like Cumulative Trauma Disorder (CTD), Repetitive Stress Injury (RSI), etc.
CTD is a condition of wear and tear on tendons, muscles and nerves which results from cumulative overuse and often results in producing pain. The three primary risk factors found in office environments which can lead to CTD are: repetition, force and awkward posture.
RSI occur from repeated physical movements doing damage to tendons, nerves, muscles, and other soft body tissues. Occupations ranging from manual labourers to musicians have characteristic RSIs that can result from the typical tasks they perform. The rise of computer use and flat, light-touch keyboards that permit high speed typing have resulted in an epidemic of injuries of the hands, arms, and shoulders. Use of pointing devices like mouse and trackballs are as much a cause, if not more so. The thousands of repeated keystrokes and long periods of clutching and dragging with mouse slowly accumulates damage to the body; another name for the condition is Cumulative Trauma Disorder. This can happen even more quickly as a result of the typing technique and body positions that place unnecessary stress on the tendons and nerves in the hand, wrist, arms, and even the shoulders and neck. Lack of adequate rest and breaks and using excessive force almost guarantee trouble.
You may have heard the term Carpal Tunnel Syndrome in connection with these injuries, but in fact CTS is only a small and dangerous percentage of typing injuries. Tendinitis, Tenosynovitis, DeQuervain’s Syndrome, Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, and several other related conditions are also to blame. All of these are serious and in advanced cases can cause great pain and permanent disability.
These risk factors can be controlled by adjusting workstations to fit you (changing work postures, reducing continuous repetitions, and stretching periodically). Remember – you spend one-third of your day at work…make it a comfortable day.
Alexis Leon, DQ Week Madras, 10th March 1997.