Last week I had the opportunity to work with several injured workers in their office environment. Both spend 8 hours in front of a computer performing extensive keyboard and mouse work. Both are in serious pain with repetitive injuries that cause aching within 30 seconds of sitting down to work. Both have seen doctors, therapists, and had ergonomic interventions with the best equipment issued. One has already been scheduled to undergo a carpal tunnel release in the near future.
Speaking to and observing the work habits of these women has affirmed my belief that ergonomics is a multi-faceted process requiring teamwork to be successful.
- The doctor may diagnose and offer expertise in prescribing medications to calm down the inflammatory process of injury.
- The therapists can perform modalities such as massage, ultrasound and the use of heat and cold to promote injury recovery. Skilled in observing how bodies work, they can discover areas of weakness, tightness and muscular imbalances that can be corrected with therapeutic exercise.
- The ergonomic specialist can provide the equipment, work-site modifications, and work-style recommendations that create a comfortable and less stressful working environment.
- Management can provide a supportive environment that allows healing, promotes employee good-will, but also ensures productivity.
- And the injured worker needs to believe in the program and take an active part in their recovery. This is not always an easy thing to do – it requires persistence, even a bit of obsession, to attend medical and therapy appointments, take medications on schedule, change work habits, stretch, take frequent micro-breaks, and use cold packs throughout the day – all while trying to get the job done, frequently under the microscope of management and co-workers who may not believe that an invisible injury can be so painful.
If any aspect of the team process is impaired, recovery may be impaired. Communication and education are critical throughout. So is observation, follow-up, and accepting feedback. My observation of the two young women last week shows how the process can break down in spite of good intentions. It also highlights one of my ergonomic pet peeves – the wrist rest.
Both women had wrist rests in place, and both demonstrated their typing skills using the wrist rest, believing that they were using them correctly and showing me what I wanted to see. Neither had received instruction in the proper use of the wrist rest and they were probably continuing to create inflammation through its improper use.
The wrist rest is not inherently a bad piece of equipment, but it is improperly named. Logically, because of the name, most people feel they need to rest their wrists. Most plant their wrists down on the nice soft surface while typing and feel they are doing a good thing - an ergonomic thing - that will help them prevent injuries. In actuality, they are isolating the work of the fingers from that of the upper arm.
The finger muscles are too small and weak to perform constant movement throughout the day. In addition, the isolated movement is often more extreme than typical to make up for the loss of positioning movement over the keyboard often performed by the shoulder. As the muscles of the fingers and wrist originate at the elbow, pain often begins radiating from the fingers into the elbow.
If ergonomic equipment is issued without warning, - I’ve worked with employees who just showed up one morning to find their work environment changed and ergonomic equipment in place - consent, or instruction in the proper use, it will either be rejected or used in what is thought to be the correct manner. However, the equipment itself is not the answer, but only a tool that enables a worker to be safe if it is used properly.
It would be much better to call the wrist "rest" a wrist "guide" as the wrist should float over it. The wrist rest should "guide" the wrist into the neutral position. It is okay to rest down lightly during typing breaks.
Here are some additional ergonomic keyboard work-method recommendations.
- The hand should be positioned over the keyboard using small shoulder and elbow movements.
- The shoulders should be relaxed and not elevated (drawn up towards the ears).
- You should be in close enough to the work surface so that your ears, shoulders and elbows are in line.
- The work surface should be low enough that the elbows are open slightly greater than 90 degrees.
- The fingers should be relaxed and slightly curved as if resting over a ball.
- Hit keys lightly with only the minimal amount of force necessary to activate the keys.
- Don’t hitch-hike by holding the thumb tensely over the spacebar.
Marji Hajic is an Occupational Therapist and a Certified Hand Therapist practicing in Santa Barbara, California. For more information on hand and upper extremity injuries, prevention and recovery, visit Hand Health Resources.