Computer jobs have health hazards, too

Jobs requiring heavy computer use are not usually considered dangerous.
However, computer-related injuries such as repetitive strain injury, carpal tunnel syndrome and cumulative trauma are on the rise, according to Neil Carlson of the University’s Department of Environmental Health and Safety and a member of the Ergonomics Task Force.
Claims related to repetitive strain at the University have risen 1,600 percent since 1976. But the task force hopes to bring that percentage down through education and proper desk ergonomics.
Ergonomics is the science of aligning the body properly to avoid muscle strain or injury.
“Fortunately, awareness of the problem is greater now. Everyone knows of someone with RSI, or they’ve had it themselves,” said Deborah Quilter, a private repetitive strain injury consultant and the author of “Repetitive Strain Injury: A Computer User’s Guide.”
Repetitive strain injury is caused by a combination of repetition, forceful movement, awkward position and inadequate rest. Symptoms include tightness, discomfort, stiffness or pain in the hands, wrists, fingers, forearms and elbows. They also include tingling, coldness or numbness of the hands, clumsiness or loss of coordination in the hands, tremors and fatigue.
Repetitive strain injuries develop slowly and are hard to identify in early stages, making it difficult to diagnose. Computer professionals might find it difficult to determine if their hands are sore from a long day of typing or from weekend chores such as raking or gardening.
Because of difficulty in diagnosing the injury, it is hard to keep an accurate count of how many people actually have repetitive strains.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration estimates that 2.73 million worker’s compensation claims in 1993 were related to repetitive strain injury. Because some employees might be reluctant to file claims for fear of losing jobs and promotions, it is unclear how many people are actually affected.
Because a sufferer might show no outward signs of the illness, it is often not taken as seriously as it should be.
“RSI is no joke. Just because you don’t see an open wound doesn’t mean a person is not seriously injured,” Stephanie Barnes of the Carpal Tunnel/RSI Association said.
The ailment is not new. Musicians, assembly line workers and other workers who have relied on small muscle groups to do repetitive tasks have always been at risk. The recent epidemic of repetitive injury is a result of the rise of computers and flat, light touch keyboard use, as well as the use of pointing devices such as mouses and trackballs, Quilter said.
In 1982, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 21 percent of total illnesses reported were a result of cumulative trauma. By 1991 the number jumped to 60 percent.
In 1992, a task force was formed at the University to address the issue of repetitive strain injury and ergonomics at the University. In 1996 the task force was recognized by the National Safety Council and the Campus Safety Association for its pro-active approach to safety at the University.
And the task force was up to a challenge. Because the advancement of work stations did not match advancement of computer technology, the University was left with a patchwork of work stations not designed to meet the needs of the modern computer user.
A $50,000 fund was transferred from the Office of Risk Management to the Department of Environmental Health and Safety to be used as matching funds for departmental purchases throughout the University.
For offices wishing to update their work stations before any personnel in the department are found to have repetitive injuries, the committee will match 25 percent of the cost of the purchase, according to Disability Services employee David Fuecker.
If someone in the office has been diagnosed with repetitive strain injury, the committee will match 50 percent of the funds needed for changes. If workers compensation is accepted, the committee pays all necessary changes, said Fuecker, who added that the injuries are a growing part of his caseload.
For a department to receive the funds, an evaluator from the Ergonomics Task Force must evaluate the work stations in question. Carlson, one of the evaluators, examines a work station and rates the changes necessary to bring it to safe, ergonomic standards.
Carlson checks every aspect of the work stations including the desk, the chair, the pointing device, the wrist rest, the lighting and the job at hand. Each evaluation is different, Carlson said, even if the jobs are the same.
“Two people may have different setups based on their body shape and how they approach the task,” Carlson said.
In 1993, the committee made recommendations to the University for several policies to be implemented. Included was the recommendation that the University should provide work-site analysis, that compensation policies permitting departments to tie pay level to amount of data entry be abolished, and that the University should hire trained rehabilitation counselors to assist employees and departments with return-to-work services.
In 1995, the task force was successful in nearly all of these goals. More than 40 departments were evaluated and a standardized checklist was implemented. One department eliminated the pay-by-keystrokes policy. Two rehabilitation trainers, Margaret Klein and Michelle Kasieta, were hired by Disability Services.
Task force members said they hope to reduce the number of strain injuries through its approaches to ergonomics.
Members added that these steps are important because repetitive strain injury is a debilitating disorder. If untreated it can lead to permanent injury. However, it is a preventable injury. With proper ergonomic setups it is possible to avoid the injury altogether.
Bad posture is one contributing factor to injuries. Each stroke an operator makes requires the muscles to contract and tendons to move. As tendons slide over bone and against tissue they can become inflamed. To avoid these problems OSHA recommends several ergonomic solutions.
OSHA suggests that computer professionals use a chair with an adjustable seat that ranges from 15 to 21 inches off the floor. It should be adjusted so the thighs are relatively horizontal, the lower legs vertical and the feet planted firmly on the floor.
The keyboard should be adjusted so the upper arm and forearm form a right angle when the hands are placed on the keyboard. The slope of the keyboard should be adjusted to maintain a flat wrist position. The recommended height of the keyboard is 23.5 to 30.5 inches from the floor and the slope should be between 0 and 15 degrees. A wrist rest should only be used for rest between keying.
The screen should be adjusted so the top of the screen is no higher than eye level. The recommended distance between the eyes and the screen is 18 to 30 inches. Source documents should be placed on the side of the dominant eye and at the same height and angle as the screen to avoid neck and shoulder strain.
Short, frequent pauses should be taken in preference to longer, more infrequent ones. Pauses should incorporate exercises, stretches and movement to stretch and strengthen muscles.