Posture police

Guarding against repetitive-motion injuries is the duty of the home office worker

March 26, 2001|By Mary Jo DiLonardo | Mary Jo DiLonardo,COX NEWS SERVICE

So, you've got a home office complete with your very own swivel chair, file cabinets that you don't have to share and no one to complain if you hang up a "World's Cutest Dairy Farmers" calendar.

But how ergonomically correct is your personal office space?

Are you wreaking havoc on your lower back, wrists or eyesight by the way you sit at your desk, manipulate your mouse or gaze at your monitor?

When you work for a big, responsible company, most of the important stuff is taken care of. You might have a glare screen for your computer, a wrist rest for your keyboard and an adjustable chair with more settings than a formal dinner at the White House.

But when you work from home, ergonomics is your own problem.

Ergonomics was formally established as a scientific discipline in 1949 to study how to improve working conditions while lessening workplace injuries. It's only within the past couple decades, however, that it has really invaded office work spaces via decent office chairs and correct computer monitor placement.

With the age of computers, many of us spend hours on end sitting in front of our screens, in our chairs. "The Internet allows people to have meetings right there at the computer," says Joan Guetschow of Ergoweb.com, a site that offers all things ergonomic including training, consulting and products.

"Whereas in the past you'd get up and go to a meeting, now you stay at your desk. The technology has allowed people to sit still, which is not good for us."

The human body just wasn't designed to sit all day, agrees Alan Hedge, director of Cornell University's Human Factors and Ergonomics Laboratory, a department dedicated completely to the study of ergonomics.

"In office environments, the major problems are eyestrain; low-back pain from poor seating design and poor sitting posture; and shoulder, elbow or wrist pain such as carpal-tunnel syndrome and tendinitis," says Hedge.

And you thought working overnight at a convenience store could be dangerous. Those office ailments take their toll. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, back pain is second only to the common cold as a cause of worker absenteeism.

In addition, various studies have found that somewhere around 70 percent of women and 40 percent of men have health problems such as blood clots and varicose veins as a result of sitting all day.

Take heart. There are plenty of products out there to alleviate the problems you might already have as well as prevent any new ones from springing up.

Such as seating, for example. In addition to your standard office desk with adjustable height and lumbar supports, there are creme de la creme models that either look like something out of a high-end furniture showroom or like some sort of contraption straight out of a dentist's office.

The Steelcase Leap Chair ($700) not only looks nifty, it has a multitude of adjustments to fit just about anyone's body. Then there's the Freedom Chair from Humanscale, perhaps the nation's largest manufacturer of ergonomic products. It has an optional headrest that really makes it look like a dental chair. The award-winning chair costs an impressive $1,000. Its bells and whistles include a "smart" mechanism that senses the user's weight and automatically adjusts.

If a simple chair is too passe, why not sit on a ball? Giant, inflatable vinyl balls are all the rage for hip desk-sitters who want to avoid slouching and keep their leg muscles moving. The gymnastic balls - which average around $20-$30 - are one of the top sellers at BodyTrends.com, an online company that sells health and fitness-related items.

"The balls are coming into so many offices," says BodyTrends' Julie Tomlinson, a personal trainer who is a huge fan of the balls-as-chairs. "They help for proper posture, regular back movement with no stiffness, and they're great for stretching. There's even an anti-burst brand which slowly deflates and doesn't pop."

Which could certainly avoid some embarrassing situations.

Another round top seller is the Dyna-Flex Powerball (around $20), a whirring, buzzing gizmo that's half-toy, half-exerciser. You can use it at your desk to build arm and hand strength, warding off potential carpal tunnel problems. It's a gyroscope that dares you to keep hold of it while it spins and twirls in your palm.

You can also help prevent that wrist-and-hand pain by using a state-of-the-art mouse. Humanscale offers the Whale Mouse ($69), a uniquely designed apparatus that relaxes your hand and encourages you to use the larger muscles of your arm as opposed to just the delicate muscles in your hand and wrist.

In other mouse news, 3M's Renaissance Mouse ($80) features a vertical design that keeps your hand in a "handshake" position in order to reduce muscle strain. It looks a bit like a high-tech joystick.

While your hands are busy, keep your toes tapping. Check out Humanscale's Foot Machine, a kind of rocking chair for your feet. The $89 gadget is a rocking footrest that encourages your feet to gently move almost subconsciously, helping your circulation and working out most of your lower leg muscles.

This is all just the beginning. Other products include glare screens, wrist rests (for your mouse and/or your keyboard), document holders and monitor stands. Kinesis manufactures various keyboards that look like they came off the command center of the Starship Enterprise.

3M makes gel-filled wrist rests that conform to your wrist and your palm. Air Technologies offers a slew of glare filters in various sizes and colors.

All these neat-looking gizmos can be tempting. But try before you buy, to make sure the product fits and works for you.

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