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Ergonomic Risks from Laptop Computers

35,000,000 laptop computers are to be produced in 2003!  Dependency on the laptop as a primary workstation has been established in all types of office work.  Some large companies are planning complete shifts from desk-top to laptop models.  However, this convenience of portability has lead to a wide range of ergonomic situations.

The Omaha, Nebraska, police department added laptops to squad cars so officers could perform quick background checks and other high-tech functions while on patrol.  However, awkward postures (twisting from the driver’s seat to the passenger side to access the monitor and keyboard) and barriers to vehicle controls put the project on hold until the ergonomic risks can be resolved.

In spite of the convenience of mobile computing and the sheer demand for portable workstations, the basic design has changed little in 20 years.  With the keyboard attached to the monitor, neither the neck nor the hands can be comfortably positioned.  Invariably, the neck suffers from being angled and flexed to view the low display.  Studies show that raising the entire unit to accommodate the neck places stress on the shoulders, arms, wrists and hands.  This is a lose-lose design.  In addition, hands can suffer from being too large to navigate the tight keyboard or from isolated finger use from the trackball mouse.  The palm rests in front of the keyboard tend to isolate the typing and mouse movements to individual finger and hand muscles, rather than allowing the forearm to float freely over the keys.  Eyestrain can occur from the monitor being too close.

Suggestions / Recommendations

  1. External Devices    Attach keyboard and mouse; raise the screen to eye level.
  2. Docking Stations    Plug into a docking station or a port replicator to transform the laptop into a desktop.  Using a simple cable ($13 to $20) to expand the mouse port is an inexpensive fix for part of the problem.
  3. Weight and Protection    The light weight model is subject to breaks, costly repairs and less protection.  Carrying cases are more ergonomically correct (padded shoulder straps; backpack design; etc.) but do not offer protection for the equipment.  The average weight of a laptop and attachments, in a carrying case, is 18 to 34 pounds.  According to the American Medical Association, no more than 15% of a person’s body weight should be carried or strapped on for transport.
  4. Monitor Height     Some companies are elevating the monitor from the keyboard.

Laptop Tips

  1. Use external devices
    Make every effort to set the laptop like a desktop, with the monitor at eye level and the keyboard and mouse at lap level.  Travel with an external keyboard or borrow one; pack a cable splitter so the single port will accommodate both keyboard and mouse; use books to raise the display to eye level.
  2. Find laptop-friendly workspaces
    Ignore high tables and use towels and pillows for extra support; use an armless chair for full arm freedom.
  3. Pack full sized mouse and keyboard
    Laptop keyboards without number pads may have full sized keys.
  4. Program macros and use shortcuts to decrease keystrokes
  5. Beware of getting too comfortable when working at home.
    Lying on a couch and typing can cause neck and back pain.  Make the effort to be ergonomic at home, too.
  6. Carry only the essentials

Summarized from “Laptops as primary workstations present ergo risks” by Lori Stotko