Home Office: Work in Comfort, and Treat Your Body Right

Take this quiz: I say, "ergonomics." You respond, "boooooring." But hold on a sec. That word is your excuse (mine, anyway) to buy some cool, new--and comfortable--equipment. And the nifty side effect is a good possibility of reducing those aches in your neck, arm, and back.

When I first started using computers, it struck me that sitting in front of a monitor for a goodly part of the day, with my hands glued to a keyboard, was an inherently unhealthy experience. I thought I'd win the Nobel prize for the discovery; instead, I ended up hunting for ways to make the experience a little less uncomfortable.

Official Bass Disclaimer

My editor's deeply concerned you'll think I'm offering you medical advice. (Yeah, I know, it's hard to believe, but what am I gonna do? He approves my expense account.) So I consulted my attorney, Bernie, from the law offices of Dewey, Fleecem & Howe, who strongly urges you to view my suggestions as just that--ideas to consider. These are simply recommendations from experts that I trust; they're by no means hard science.

I figure I'd better play it really safe, so I've got a couple more pointers before I leave the topic: Make sure you're not reading this newsletter while operating heavy machinery. And for goodness' sake, don't ever drive while listening to relaxation tapes. Thanks, I think that covers it.

Feeling Achy? Think Keyboards

There are some really simple things the experts recommend to avoid problems. The first thing is to take a look at the location of your keyboard and mouse. Unfortunately, both often end up on top of your desk. This absurdity is perpetuated by magazine ads selling cool looking office furniture with the keyboard and mouse plunked on the desktop.

Folks, the keyboard shouldn't be on your desk.

Figuring out the height of the keyboard is simple: It should be set so your arm and forearm are at a right angle to the keyboard with the forearms and hands forming straight lines, experts say. The mouse should be at the same level as--and directly next to--the keyboard. I found a terrific site that spells out, in clear terms, the nuances of setting up an ergonomically smart office, including specific guidelines for keyboards and mice: San Diego State University's Environmental Health and Safety--Ergonomics department. Start by taking the Self-Evaluation Survey.

Dig This: If you happen to have all the best ergonomic equipment and aren't feeling any pain, I have just the thing for you. The WiFi-SM, a new P2P (pain-to-pain) technological breakthrough. [With thanks to Gus.]

Keyboard Fixer Uppers

After spending lots of time carefully reviewing what the experts say on the Internet, I found a few products that might help you solve your keyboard and mouse problem. I also ran across seven other ergonomic products. It's all in my December magazine column, "Take Comfort in Your Home Office."

In the column I talk about Kensington's $90 Adjustable Underdesk Shelf. Want more options? Go to the Kensington site, or check out 3M, which offers a decent selection of keyboard drawers and trays.

There's another slick--and expensive, at more than $500--way to put your keyboard and mouse in the right place. In the column I introduce you to Neutral Posture Chairs. Some of the models let you attach specially designed keyboards to the arms. I tried one; but because I'm not a touch typist (amazing, I know), I wasn't too keen on the split keyboard.

Dig This: I'm a sucker for optical illusions, and Michael Bach's Optical Illusions & Visual Phenomena has a bunch of neat, animated ones. I have a dozen favorites, but two that stand out are Motion-Bounce Illusion and Sigma Motion. [With thanks to Tom Lenzo.]

Ducking Ergonomic Maladies

Perhaps you're wondering if there's anything you can do to guard against ergonomic ailments besides purchasing more equipment. Yep, there's plenty. One of the things you need to do is keep your circulation moving. Wiggle your toes, roll your eyes (except when your boss is around), and stand up and stretch. I have a couple articles for you to peruse for some suggestions.

The first is "Beware: Your PC Can Kill You," where you'll learn about a computer user who nearly dies from sitting in front of his PC too long (and he wasn't reading my columns).

Next is "Essential Ergonomics," a splendid piece with typical ways you damage your body while computing, along with smart solutions (and exercises) to rectify them. Although the article's old, its recommendations are still fresh.

I've come across an exercise that might be worth trying, to reduce repetitive strain. It's designed by a licensed chiropractor and ergonomics expert, Rich "Doc" Colley, and it involves a cheap, ingeniously low-tech tool: a rubber band. Wrap the rubber band around the fingers of the hand you use the most and then extend--or spread--the band with your fingers. The exercise works for me, folks; I do it regularly, especially when I feel a deadline coming on.

Comfort for Notebook Users

The truth is that, ergonomically speaking, notebooks are awful. Think back to the last time you used a notebook. How'd you like the position of the keyboard? Go ahead, try to adjust it. Well, it turns out I'm not the only one harping on ergonomics. IBM thinks most notebooks aren't designed with the user in mind. It has a prototype in the works that lets you detach the keyboard and monitor. Read more about it in Randy Ross's "IBM Notebooks Go Ergonomic."

If you're using your notebook as your primary computer, you might consider connecting a decent keyboard to it. Then pop the notebook up on its own high chair: the Lapvantage Dome. This $80 gizmo lets you perch you notebook at the correct ergonomic height with the monitor at just the right eye level.

The Home Office Advantage

If you're working in a home office, or a small business with a bright boss, you might be able to get the green light for some of the purchases I mentioned. But if you need ammo for your boss (or your spouse) to make your office an ergonomically safe place, use my list of professional references, including MDs and environmental health and safety experts:

  • Ergo Tips. Cornell University Ergonomics Web provides an excellent step-by-step guide that helps you match up the pain you might experience with explanations for why it hurts, and tips and guidelines for changing the design of your office.
  • Office of Ergonomic Training. This site offers a check list of common office problems and solutions from Ankrum Associates, a private ergonomics consulting firm.
  • Online Safety Library: Ergonomics. Oklahoma State University's Environmental Health and Safety department offers a comprehensive list of up-to-date links to physicians, state agencies, and universities regarding all aspects of ergonomics (and yes, the site has links for all over the country, not just Oklahoma).

Shameless Promotion: Did you realize I'm an allegedly famous author? No lie. I wrote PC Annoyances: How to Fix the Most Annoying Things About Your Personal Computer, published by O'Reilly. Buy a few copies so I can add another wing to the mansion here at Bass International. You can find it at Amazon.com.

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