Well-designed furniture can ease computer buffs' aches and pains


December 23, 1991|By PETER H. LEWIS | PETER H. LEWIS,New York Times News Service

What last-minute gifts are appropriate for the computer user in your life, yourself included, besides a gift-wrapped bottle of aspirin, some eyedrops, a wrist splint (currently made fashionable by the singer Michael Jackson) and a neck massage?

Seriously, some of the most considerate and loving gifts for computer users are those that address the increasingly common physical complaints associated with prolonged computer use.

Some scientific evidence shows that the association exists, and anyone who uses a computer regularly for hours at a time has probably felt the aches and pains and aggravations that fall under the broad category of repetitive strain injuries.

Repetitive strain injuries occur in many occupations, but computers are particularly insidious because they focus the user's attention on the screen for long periods.

Studies suggest that computer users tend to forget their physical needs while they are so mentally engrossed, often neglecting to blink, look around or shift positions even when they are uncomfortable.

Low-tech gifts may be appreciated even more than the latest software or computer gadget. Many computer stores are TC beginning to stock an assortment of so-called ergonomic items that reduce physical stress.

Years of personal experience suggest that a comfortable, adjustable chair is the single most important item for the health and well-being of the computer user.

Good office chairs are not cheap, but neither is sustained treatment by an orthopedist or chiropractor. One of the few bright spots in a recession is that good used office furniture is often available inexpensively at auctions or in classified ads.

Adjustable desks are harder to put under the tree, but they also offer benefits. The goal is to find the right combination of chair height, desk height, keyboard placement and monitor angle to allow the user to sit with feet on the floor (or footrest), back straight, forearms level, wrists supported by a soft wrist rest, and eyes level with the top of the monitor.

Big desks are not a bad idea if space permits. Because of uncertainties about low-level electromagnetic radiation, peripherals like laser printers are best placed as far back on the desk as possible.

Some people suggest that the computer screen should be at least 24 inches away to minimize any potentially harmful low-level radiation; other suggest sitting 18 to 24 inches away for ease of viewing.

Wrist rests, often in the form of a soft padded bar placed in front of the keyboard, are inexpensive (typically under $15 in the stores) and practical. We have seen some delightful home-made wrist rests that use colorful fabric filled with pellets, foam or dry beans and attached to a wood base.

A telephone head set can prevent the Quasimodo syndrome that afflicts people who often cradle the phone between ear and shoulder while trying to type at the computer with both hands. Once found mainly in specialty stores and catalogs, head sets are now carried by many consumer electronics outlets at prices ranging from $25 to $250.

Another valuable non-computer device is a desktop air filter, the kind sold by companies like Bionair and Panasonic. These machines, which cost $75 to $150 for popular models, draw a room's air through filters that trap dust and other particulate matter.

They can cause drafts, however, which may prove bothersome for people who wear contact lenses.

Air filters are certainly salubrious for the computer. If you have not done so lately, peek around back at the computer's air intake (almost all computers have a fan that keeps the circuitry from overheating), or open the case and marvel at the dust and fuzz that accumulate there.

Dust can prevent heat from dissipating from delicate electronic components, creating a risk of malfunction or of shortening the life of the part.

Dust, smoke particles and other contaminants are also attracted by the static electricity that builds on the computer screen. That is why computer monitors and television screens are often coated with a thin film of dust. The dust can cause skin irritation and rashes.

A room humidifier both helps prolong the life of computers and makes the winter months more bearable for computer users. Static electricity, even the tiniest spark, can toast a memory chip and cause garbled data or even computer failure. Raising the humidity in a room lessens the risk of static electricity and also safeguards the user's sinuses.

People who do not use computers are often anxious about choosing computer-related gifts. Many are justifiably fearful of getting the wrong type of software or an incompatible piece of hardware.

The low-tech suggestions above, along with gift certificates for massages, adjustable desk lamps that improve room lighting, desk clocks to remind the user to take frequent breaks, and other indirectly ergonomic items, are caring as well as practical.

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