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Surprise: Mobile devices don't help office ergonomics

Lamont Wood | Aug. 12, 2013
Getting a move on is good, but understand the devices' limitations as you do so.

Haptics, which attempt to provide that missing feedback from flat screens, might be a help here — eventually. But the technologies are still being developed and not yet widely adopted in mobile devices.

Laptops, meanwhile, are considered non-ergonomic by nature, since there is no way to adjust the distance between the keyboard and screen. "Your hands want to be close to your chest, but your eyes want to be focused on something two feet in front of you," making an ergonomic posture unobtainable with a laptop, Hedge explains.

Using laptops on a desk, in place of a desktop, only compounds the problem, he adds. "Desks are usually about 30 inches high, which is a good height for writing by hand on paper but dreadful for typing, as it is too high unless you are taller than 6'2". Then you are adding the height of the laptop."

But he notes that the problem can be alleviated by the use of LCD monitor arms, which hold the laptop in an elevated position where its screen can be used as the system display. An add-on keyboard and mouse can be placed on the desk.

An alternative setup is to close the laptop and use an external monitor as well as the external keyboard/mouse, but Hedge feels that the displays on late-model laptops, such as the Retina display on the MacBook Pro, are too good to waste.

As for smartphones, the reliance on thumbs for texting has led to an upsurge of a condition variously called BlackBerry Thumb, Text Thumb, Nintendo Thumb or De Quervain Syndrome.

"BlackBerry Thumb is really tendinitis at the base of the thumb, caused by rapid texting, and it's a growing trend," says Linda Weitzel, senior ergonomist for Xerox in Rochester, N.Y. Using other texting input options will help, she adds, such as predictive spelling and speech recognition.

Hedge notes that a 2006 Virgin Mobile survey of British users found that reports of sore thumbs or wrists were up 38% over a span of five years. More recent research confirms those findings.

Standing up for frequent breaks
If mobile devices are not the answer, neither is gym membership, since exercise outside the office does not undo the unnatural effects of sitting fixedly at a desk for hours, says Dr. Joan Vernikos, former director of NASA's Life Sciences Division and based in Culpepper, Va.

"There is a foundation of activity that we need to do throughout the day to stay healthy," she says. "This is the kind of activity that our parents and grandparents used to get throughout the day, but gadgets have taken it away from us," Vernikos says. Going to the gym for half an hour in the morning and then sitting for the rest of the day does not provide that foundation, she elaborates.

 

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