Six Ways to Prevent Office Injury

Six Ways to Prevent Office Injury

By Larry Buhl, for Yahoo! HotJobs

It's not just the most physically demanding jobs that can lead to serious injuries. Working with a seemingly harmless mouse and keyboard can cause chronic injuries just as easily as hauling a load of cement. In fact, repetitive strain injuries such as carpal tunnel affect hundreds of thousands of American workers a year, and lead to tens of billions of dollars annually in workers' comp claims, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. 

Nelson Liu, a certified acupuncturist in Los Angeles, sees many of these disorders in his patients. "People who sit at desks and work on computers come to me with chronic pain in the shoulders, wrist, neck and eyes, and they often result from the small, repetitive motions they do on the job every day," he says.

Common Injury Causes

The top culprits of what experts call repetitive strain disorders include:

  • Sitting in an unnatural posture for a long time.
  • Not allowing recovery time.
  • Shallow breathing.
  • Repetitive motions, such as using the phone, typing with bent wrists and using a mouse.
  • Using force or pressure, such as pinching pens, gripping the mouse too hard or pounding the keyboard.

Even emotional stress can lead to strain and pain. "People are particularly stressed out right now, and often emotional stress turns to physical stress, which turns to worse posture, which turns to pain, which turns to more stress," says Wendy Young, a certified ergonomist in Houston and author of the e-book, Get Inside Your Comfort Zone.

There are ways to break the vicious circle, and they don't necessarily require the most expensive office chair or expert intervention, according to Tony Biafore, an ergonomics expert president of Ergonetics. "A lot of companies think they can solve ergonomics problems with a one-size-fits-all approach, or by buying the most expensive keyboards or office chairs," Biafore says. "Fancy ergonomic equipment is worthless if you don't identify how you're using them."

Decrease the Risk Factors

To avoid pain and possibly chronic problems, ergonomics experts recommend several ways of developing a low-risk working posture:

  • Sit Naturally: "Many people perch on their chair, lean forward and tuck their feet under, especially when they're concentrating," Biafore said. Notice how you sit, and make adjustments to the chair or to your posture if any part of your body is experiencing tightness, strain or pain.  
  • Type Right: You shouldn't have to change your seated posture or angle your hands to type. The keyboard should come to you. If it doesn't, adjust your seating position or ask for a keyboard tray.  
  • Check Your Viewpoint: Your eyes should naturally gaze at the middle of the computer screen. If you have to look up or down, move the display. This goes for placement of paper documents as well -- you shouldn't have to crane your neck to see them.  
  • Catch the Mouse Problem: If you have to reach for it, then your seated posture may be out of whack.  
  • Take Breaks: You should get up about five minutes every hour to get out of your chair, get a drink or just walk to the next cubicle. Young also recommended taking microbreaks, of about 10 seconds every 15 minutes to rest your eyes and hands.  
  • Speak Up: Report any problem to facilities, HR or, if your company has one, an ergonomics specialist. If you've identified the problem as merely the need for a wrist pad, an adjustable chair or a movable display, it's in the company's interest to comply.

Laptops present a special challenge because they require users to lean too far forward and reach for the keyboard, according to Biafore. If you can, use an external keyboard and a mouse, and prop up the screen to replicate an LED monitor, Biafore suggested.

Many changes can be small -- like adjusting the seat position or raising your arms off the desk -- and can be done without consulting an ergonomics expert. But remember that one change you make could throw off something else. "The workstation should fit your body like a comfortable pair of shoes," Young said.

Making adjustments to your workstation requires paying close attention to your body. "Any kind of pain is a signal, and if you cover it up with medication, or even getting acupuncture, without addressing the underlying cause, it will only get worse," Liu says. "Ultimately the best doctor is yourself -- only you can figure out exactly what's not working and how to fix it."

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