Report on Margaret Hanson’s talk– Fostering Health in the Workplace:
Working comfortably – 28 March 2007
We are most grateful to Martin Currie for hosting us.
Margaret Hanson of WorksOut began by defining her area of expertise. Ergonomics is the application of scientific information concerning humans to the design of objects, systems and environments for human use.
Margaret then showed us an amusing picture of a man sat very uncomfortably in front of a PC. Which variables in the picture, she asked, could be adjusted to help him work comfortably? Answer: all of them! – from the height of his desk to the size of the back support of his chair.
Once you’ve got your equipment properly set, the other key factor in working comfortably is posture. “Keeping a straight back” is perhaps not such a good phrase to keep in mind as: “Ensure your shoulders are actually above your hips.”
Margaret had us move about a bit and feel our lower back at the same time. This was to help us realise that our lower back changes shape when we adopt different positions. Strange as it may seem to us, we are actually putting more strain on our lower back when we are seated than when we are standing. This is because there is more pressure on our discs when we are in a seated position. Conclusion: ensure your back is supported! What you certainly don’t want is to be sloping or leaning forward.
Next, Margaret took a chair and a friendly volunteer. She showed us how the height of the chair needs to be adjusted, then how the seat should be adjusted forward or back. Too far one way or the other is bad for you. Ideally, you have 2 to 4 fingers’ breadth of space between the front of your chair and the back of your knees. Then you adjust the back of the chair up or down, so as to be properly supported. Then you adjust the angle of the back of the chair.
If you have a chair back that can lean back, good. But ideally you keep the chair firm/rigid when keying, and only go into free float mode when you are on the telephone. The body likes variety and movement.
How to adjust the screws/knobs? “Rightly tightly; leftie loosely!” That was new terminology for some of us, and a handy phrase.
Now for the posture of your arms: when keying/typing your forearms should be horizontal.
Finally, your feet: did you know that you are by law entitled to a foot rest if you need one?
Back to the chair though, and the subject of chair-arms: Margaret’s message was that these get in the way and we should take them off (maybe only designated personnel may do that in your office, so best to check). Of course, if you need arms to push yourself up and off your chair, that’s a different matter.
A question was popped by a young lawyer among us: do you need to make adjustments between keying and writing? Said Margaret: usually, you will find yourself lowering your seat slightly when you move into writing mode.
One thing you should not do is to put the keyboard away so as to write, and to then return to use the keyboard “at a distance.” This is making you adopt a totally wrong posture and, if done long enough, it will lead to physical problems.
Remember: “shoulders above hips.” Along with that, avoid “turkey-neck” tendency, i.e. your head jutting forward. This puts serious strain on your neck. Think of the weight of your head and it being supported “off-centre” – definitely unhelpful! But a lot of us do it. Get a colleague to look at you side-on to see if you have a tendency to “turkey-neck.”
Further information on the way we hold our head: it is really bad for you constantly to look down at your keyboard. The best corrective you can make is to learn to touch type. So go for it, 20 minutes a day for a month say, and you’ll master this.
Another questioner asked: “Keyboard legs up or down?” It makes little or no difference, said Margaret.
Now for the screen. Point one: it really must be right in front of you, not to one side or the other. And it must be a case of: eyes level with top of the screen. Why? It is easy for the eye muscles to look down; it is hard for them to look up (just try it for a second and you’ll see.) But if the top of the screen is too far down, your head can tend to tilt forward – not a good thing.
If you are studying or copying from a sheet of paper, have it on a vertical clipboard/easel right next to the screen, not flat on the desk.
Now for laptops. Here was Margaret’s surprising recommendation: You should only use them when you absolutely have to. The gap between the screen and the keyboard is just nowhere near ergonomically sound! So: by all means arrange things so the top of the screen is eye height, but use a separate keyboard much lower down than the laptop’s. Moreover, when you are on a train, don’t prop your forearms at an angle on the edge of the table top – that pressure is bad for you.
Ah, you say, what about that pain in my right shoulder? Answer: try using the mouse in your left hand (I do now – what relief this gave to my right shoulder!)
Here’s something else you can do to cut down on the distance between the letters on your keyboard and that mouse away over there under your right hand: get a keyboard without arrow keys or a number pad. Such an item is now readily available and cheap. Maybe your company should order in a batch of these? PS: You can also get a separate number pad these days.
By now we have covered: work-station set-up and good posture.
Margaret then told us about how helpful it is to take two kinds of breaks:
- Micro-breaks every 5 minutes, e.g. moving your hands away from the keyboard and mouse, perhaps just letting them hang loose at your sides for 10 seconds.
- Mini-breaks every hour, i.e. between 5 and 10 minutes out of that PC/workstation posture, perhaps answering the phone or conferring with a colleague while sitting on a different chair away from your PC.
Margaret then went on to say we can get our PC to be truly what it is, a computer: it can do all sorts of tasks beyond mere typing, so let’s save ourselves wear and tear and get the computer to shape up for us and do what it really is capable of:
- Autocorrects/shortcuts. For these, look under Tools. Go to Autocorrect Options. Put in any oft-used words here. Use this clever function both for long words and for correcting your most often mistyped words, e.g. one lady present said she always types “solicitors” wrongly. Well, let the computer do the work of automatically dropping that word into your text.
- Keyboard shortcuts. Yes, you can use your PC without a mouse – e.g. to do italics, bold, to cut, etc. So adopt those keyboard shortcuts. Margaret gave us a couple of handy reference: Ability Net (scroll down and select “Keyboard Shortcuts in Windows”) and/or Hu-Tech (the sheet on keyboard shortcuts is at the bottom of the list under “resources”)
Margaret closed this most engaging and practical talk by saying: of course, a key way to work comfortably is to avoid being up-tight, i.e. to avoid putting yourself under stress. That sounded like the beginning of a theme for another talk another day.
Margaret concluded by giving us these really useful website references:
Also TSO produce a booklet called The Back Book (available from The Stationery Office) which provides advice on how to manage back pain
HSE’s leaflet on working with computers:
Exercises and microbreaks
(these sheets are at the bottom of the list, under resources)
Consultant to business matters