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I’m Curious, George: Ergonomic Work Spaces

By George | April 29th, 2008 | 1 Comment

I’m Curious George is written by George Needham and is published regularly on WebJunction. Check out five years of George in the WebJunction archives.

Dear George:

I guess it had to happen eventually. After having pain in my arms and wrists for the last few months, I finally went to see my doctor. He told me it looks like I have a moderate case of carpal tunnel syndrome. Like most librarians these days, I spend a lot of time on my computer. I love my work and don’t want to have to quit, but the ideas of having surgery or of wearing those awful wrist braces are equally unappealing. What can I do?

Aching in Atchison

Dear AA:

I feel your pain. Literally: I was diagnosed about 18 months ago with carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) and I’ve had to make a number of changes in my work space, both at home and at work, since then. Please note that what follows is very general information, and should not be used to substitute from the direction you receive from your medical professionals!

George NeedhamFortunately for both of us, and for the other sufferers out there, there are many resources available to help us reduce the pain and discomfort through better posture and ergonomically sound design of our work spaces.

First, start by reviewing this excellent overview of CTS from the National Institutes of Health. There’s also an excellent article in Wikipedia on CTS. Cornell University has a dazzlingly comprehensive site managed by the University’s Human Factors and Ergonomics Research Group that addresses many issues of CTS, in the library and beyond.

For even more information, check out the typing injuries website here . CTS isn’t the only thing that can happen from spending eight or more hours pounding away at a keyboard: there are numerous repetitive strain injuries, and this site addresses many of them.

Once you’ve taken some time to study the basics, you might want to move on to some of the sites devoted specifically to librarians and CTS. (A friend of mine once said that there was big money to be made in writing a book called Stir Frying for Librarians. Even though stir frying isn’t any different for librarians than it is for, say, certified public accountants, we just like things aimed directly to us!)

Right here on WebJunction, you can find an excellent primer about CTS and repetitive stress injuries, “Introduction to Ergonomics,” by Susan Tenby.

ErgoLib…Safer Library Computing is a comprehensive library-oriented CTS site. The site includes some very good basic tips that cost no or very little money to improve your posture and make your work day less painful. The site also includes links to many other useful sites, such as Michigan State University’s Ergonomics Information Center , and it also includes an extensive bibliography. The ErgoLib site has not been updated in several years but most of the links on the site are still valid.

A word of caution: when I started researching this column, I Googled “carpal tunnel syndrome,” and discovered a lot of quacks out there. Let the patient beware!

Here’s what I’ve been doing to ease my own CTS. I was lucky enough to have the help of Rhonda Burnaugh, who was then working in OCLC’s HR department and had specific education in this area. She helped me reset my work area. I lowered my chair so I could read my screen at the proper angle, and so that my elbows rested at a roughly 90° angle to my body. I added a wrist rest to the edge of my keyboard, and switched from my old fashioned optical mouse to a tracking ball mouse. That last step was probably the hardest to get used to, but it also provided the most improvement. I also moved the trackball closer to my body than I had my mouse, so that I wasn’t reaching so far.

And I sleep in those stupid wrist braces every night, to prevent backsliding during the night.

Compared to the occupational hazards my two grandfathers faced (one was a railroad cop during the Great Depression, and the other scooped highly explosive grain out of the holds of Great Lakes freighters), CTS seems trivial. Unless you’ve had it.

Good luck, AA, and follow your doctor and your physical therapist’s directions!

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