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I Compute, Ergo I Ache

Gadgets to Relieve Workplace Injury From Repetitive Tasks Abound--but Do They Work?


For office workers with nasty aches from tapping on computer keyboards or doing other repetitive tasks day after day, more and more ergonomic gizmos are coming to the rescue.

Need a break from typing? Try dictating memos with a high-tech speech-recognition system.

Suffering eye strain from the glare on your display screen? You might want to slip a tinted filter over the fluorescent lights.

Pinch your neck cradling the telephone on your shoulder? Plug in a lightweight, acoustically advanced headset.

Pushed by the high business expenses associated with employees hurt by the hazards of the modern workplace, a vast market for office ergonomic equipment and supplies has emerged. By one estimate, it is already more than a $600-million-a-year business nationally and expanding rapidly.

To be sure, there's a big catch: "There are new contraptions and they have wonderful claims, but whether they work remains to seen," said Michael Gauf, managing editor of CTD News, a newsletter about cumulative trauma disorders and ergonomic devices.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday November 12, 1996 Home Edition Business Part D Page 3 Financial Desk 2 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Rani Lueder--A photo caption in Monday's editions may have suggested to some readers that Lueder was recommending a single kind of ergonomic chair. The Reseda-based ergonomics consultant advises computer operators to use ergonomic aids suited to their individual needs and job requirements.

Thomas J. Armstrong, an occupational health specialist at the University of Michigan, acknowledged that some of the devices "make sense." The trouble is, largely because of the difficulty and high cost of researching the impact of ergonomic equipment, "we haven't done a good job of sorting out what works and what doesn't work."

But the industry has blossomed, even as government regulators have dickered over how to combat computer-related ailments--alternately known as repetitive motion injuries, cumulative trauma disorders and, lately, work-related musculoskeletal disorders.

If California adopts its proposed workplace ergonomics standard on Thursday, as expected, it will become the first state or locality in the nation with a program to fight these ailments. But even California's proposal--which would cover office, commercial and industrial workers alike--is widely criticized as a bare-bones approach.

It applies only when two or more workers have been hurt doing the same repetitive task in a given year at firms with 10 or more employees. In such cases, employers are required to simply provide injured workers with training and are asked to "consider" other measures, which could include more rest breaks or ergonomic gizmos.

In the absence of strong government mandates to do something about the increasing number of ailments, office workers such as Pam Sechrest have prodded employers to act.

In the early 1990s, Sechrest struggled with crippling tendinitis in her wrists and elbows that she blamed on her long hours working on a computer keyboard.

Then Sechrest, an office manager for a small software firm in Bellevue, Wash., got an adjustable chair and a special desk to help her sit more comfortably. Next, along with receiving therapy, she snared an ergonomic keyboard with a built-in wrist rest to relax her arms.

Today, Sechrest still suffers mild tendinitis-related discomfort, but she says the difference from three or four years ago "is like night and day."

Meanwhile, the number of office workers disabled by tendinitis, carpal tunnel syndrome and other painful musculoskeletal disorders keeps mounting. By one conservative estimate, roughly 40,000 of the more than 300,000 workplace ailments reported nationally every year are computer-related.

In fields where employees work on computers intensively--including the newspaper and telecommunications industries--the problems appear to be particularly widespread.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, in its 1992 assessment of office ergonomics problems, surveyed 108 telephone customer service employees of the Social Security Administration. It found that 73, or 68%, suffered work-related musculoskeletal disorders.

In an earlier but far bigger study of nearly 1,000 employees at the Los Angeles Times, NIOSH said that 41% of the workers reported such disorders. In more than half the reported cases, medical examinations found objective evidence of the injuries.

Despite the workplace research, there is still little hard evidence for consumers about what really prevents or alleviates ergonomic injuries. Consequently, occupational health experts advise consumers to follow Sechrest's approach. In other words, use common sense and experiment cautiously to find devices and ways of working that provide greater comfort.

Yet, when it comes to buying ergonomic products, the variety of items and the range of prices are dizzying. You can spend $1,700 on a fancy chair with a headrest or on a speech-recognition system, or fork over as little as $10 for a battery-powered envelop opener.

At Irvine-based Zee Medical Inc., a distributor of workplace first-aid and safety products, sales reps steadily pitch ergonomic products. "Everyone comes in and says their stuff works, but they have no data to back it up," said Michael Fini, Zee's marketing director.

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