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Seven Ways to Survive the Electronic Office : A User-Friendly Environment for Happier, Healthier Workers

July 21, 1987|BOB SIPCHEN

It doesn't take an expert to figure out that the office can be a pain in the neck.

A breed of experts known as ergonomists, however, is convinced that the pain in the neck and the shoulders, arms, hands, feet and eyes, as well as high blood pressure, allergies, skin rashes and even varicose veins may be linked to the work place, especially the modern "electronic office."

Lamenting a dearth of conclusive medical research, physicians, union leaders, employers and workmens' compensation attorneys are grappling with the intricacies of possible health problems that can affect the estimated 20 million Americans who spend their working hours at video display terminals, or VDTs.

In the meantime, ergonomists point out that business has at least as much of a stake in maintaining its human resources as it does its machines, and suggest a plethora of measures to keep those of you tapping away at VDTs healthier, happier, and more productive.

"Stresses (in the workplace) come from the fact that there's an inappropriate match between the people, the technology, the task, and the support equipment . . . ," said T. J. Springer, a Chicago-based human factors specialist (as American ergonomists call themselves). "Since it's kind of difficult to change people, we concentrate on things that can be adjusted: Furniture, environmental elements, etc. "

STEP 1: Get a Good Chair

Ergonomists generally agree that the chair is the single most important piece of equipment in an office. But, they warn, people often mistake "cush" for "comfort."

Sally Weinstock, for instance, used to spend a lot of time sitting down on the job. One weekend, the writer/producer, who lives in Tahoe City, sat for 30 hours straight pounding out a television script. Then she spent 10 days in bed taking pain pills.

"It was totally ridiculous. I used a director's chair--there was no support."

After two operations to correct a ruptured disk, she remains on permanent disability. Her doctors attribute her problem largely to prolonged sitting on bad chairs, she said.

Ergonomists say that an improperly designed chair and the bad posture it encourages, besides causing musculoskeletal strain, can cause swelling of the lower legs, bad circulation, elevated blood pressure and varicose veins.

A good chair, on the other hand, permits prolonged sitting without stressing the body. It supports the curvature of the back, especially through the lumbar region, while allowing natural movement; it's designed for a specific task and allows sitters to keep both feet flat on the floor with their legs bent at a 90-degree angle. People who are too short to fit their chair and their desk are advised to use footrests to maintain an ergonomically correct posture.

STEP 2: Choose the Right Desk

An improperly designed or adjusted desk is almost as effective as those medieval contraptions designed to wrack the body, ergonomists say.

Working for a long time in a constrained posture, with the arms extended, may cause cumulative trauma disorders (a.k.a. "repetitive strain injuries" or "occupational overuse injuries") such as carpal tunnel syndrome (a crimping of a nerve in the sheath of tendons running from the forearm to the hand), tendinitis, tenosynovitis (an inflammation or enlargement of the tendon sheath) and other problems of the muscles, skeleton and nerves of the upper body.

Meat packing, grocery checking, and other types of repetitive work have been linked to repetitive strain injuries. Now many ergonomists believe that intense hours at a VDT are another prescription for cumulative stress--which may explain why the afflictions are widely reported among airline reservation clerks and newsroom reporters.

As head trader at a discount stock brokerage, Mary Ellen White-Vondran, of Los Altos spent eight hours a day pulling up stock quotes, checking clients' accounts, and sending electronic mail on a VDT. After a typical day, her back, neck and arms hurt. And kept hurting. Among other problems, she became sleepless, nervous, and irritable, she said.

Her former employer does not accept her contention that her illness is work related, White-Vondran said. But she has studied the subject, and knows that many ergonomists are less willing to discount the connection between the sort of afflictions from which she suffers and work in an electronic office.

"It's premature to link specific working conditions to cumulative trauma disorders, because studies just have not been done--there simply is no hard data," said Steven Sauter, head of the motivation and stress research section at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. The institute doesn't suggest that workers ignore the potential for office-inflicted mayhem, however.

"Some of these problems may take years to develop, and the discomfort alone can be disabling regardless of whether there's medical evidence confirming the afflictions," Sauter said.

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