Business in Vancouver: News that works for you

    Your friendly desktop computer can hurt you, but solutions are numerous--and cheap

    by Alan Zisman (c) 1995 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #316  November 14, 1995 High Tech Office  column

    The computer in your office may be hazardous to your health. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics recently compared figures from 1981 and 1993, and found that when desktop computers were just beginning to penetrate the office environment, so-called cumulative trauma disorders (CTDs) accounted for 18 per cent of reported American workplace illness. Two years ago, CTDs had risen to afflict 4.4 million employees, accounting for more than 62 per cent of all workplace injuries.

    CTDs are not as dramatic as losing a finger in a sawmill or being struck by a falling tree, but they can have a major impact on an employee's productivity and happiness. And they can be expensive: it's been estimated that treating a single case of carpal tunnel syndrome, a common CTD, costs $39,000. Multiply that by 4.4 million, and we're talking real money.

    Some view all this as a business opportunity--we're urged to replace our office desks and chairs and computer keyboards with high-tech 'ergonomic' alternatives. Microsoft's Natural Keyboard, which looks as though it belongs on the starship Enterprise, comes with a silk-screened notice on the bottom listing ways to reduce repetitive strain injuries.

    But many injuries can be minimized without buying new furniture, equipment, or hardware, simply by minimizing stress in the working environment, optimizing breaks and exercise periods, and generally increasing awareness of the potential for injury in our offices.

    Peachpit Press of Berkeley, California, has a series of small, inexpensive, well-written books covering a range of computer-oriented topics. One of my favourites for the past few years has been The Little Mac Book by Robin Williamsthat Robin Williams), and highly recommended is the new 25 Steps to Safe Computing by Don Sellers ($7.95 in Canada). (no, not

    Like other Peachpit books, this one is short (72 pages), but clearly written and organized. It looks at 25 possible areas of computer-related injury and highlights warning signs, making simple, practical suggestions for improvement, and offering resources for more information.

    For example, it points out that 10 million Americans report computer-related eye complaints to optometrists each year. Symptoms can range from focusing problems to double vision, headaches and colour confusion. Suggested remedies include glancing away from the monitor for five to 10 seconds, every 10 minutes or so, spacing out computer work throughout the day, and reducing glare by controlling light levels and monitor placement. At the same time, Sellers points out that eyestrain symptoms can also be a sign of more serious illness, so if they persist, see a health-care specialist.

    Other areas of concern can include headaches, back pain, muscle strains, and stress (stress alone is estimated to cost U.S. business more than $150 billion a year).

    Sellers includes suggestions for safer use of common computer equipment such as keyboards, mice, and monitors and discusses issues such as electromagnetic radiation, putting it in relation to other areas of risk (electric blankets, for example, are much higher sources of electromagnetic fields). He also has some practical steps to minimize hazards, and a short section puts issues of concern to pregnant employees into perspective.

    As a quick, basic handbook, 25 Steps gives a brief overview of the issues involved in making your office a safer place for yourself or your employees. At the same time, such a short take on these issues raises as many questions as it answers. Happily, each of the short chapters includes a source for more information, and there is a comprehensive list of (U.S.-based) resources at the end of the book.

    Last year, Sellers wrote a more complete account, charmingly entitled Zap! How your computer can hurt you--and what you can do about it, which won the Benjamin Franklin Award for best health book of 1994.

    You owe it to your back, eyes and wrists--and those of your employees or co-workers--to take a look at one or the other of these books, and to try to implement their practical (and no-cost) solutions to computer-based injury in your workplace.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan