Wednesday, April 19, 2006
  Computer use causes RSI worry
Published New Zealand Herald 5.04.06
By Adam Gifford

I'm back in a regular, if part time, job after years of freelancing, and it scares me. Not the job itself, which is fun and challenging, but the spectre of pain around the corner.

Pain from repetitive strain injury or occupational overuse syndrome, first contracted years ago using clunky newspaper text input systems and managed with various degrees of success ever since.

It wasn't a problem in the manual typewriter days. Whack the keys on an Imperial 66 and your fingers knew they were doing some real exercise.

But bash away at a computer keyboard for hours, only needing to put on enough pressure to connect two metal pads, and the body starts getting some odd messages.

There is all this muscular movement, this pushing, without much of a push back. Meanwhile the big muscle groups around the upper chest and back and the neck are holding you in space, while all these little movements are going on at the ends of your arms.

Somewhere down the track some nerves are going to start misfiring, perhaps setting up feedback loops of pain which won't go away.

So this new job. Should I ask for a different chair? An ergonomic keyboard? Something else to make me feel I have mitigated some risk?

"There is no science to say that ergonomic keyboards work," says Dr Kevin Taylor from Christchurch firm Wellnomics.

Taylor developed an RSI prevention software package called WorkPace as a result of his own experience of keyboard-generated pain, incurred while finishing his engineering doctoral thesis.

His company is now one of the world leaders in the field, with more than one million software licenses sold worldwide, including to giant companies such as Philips, Shell, Chevron, Ericsson and AT&T.

It has just conducted a major research and product development exercise in association with Dutch research institute TNO Netherland, with help from a $350,000 matching Technology Business Growth subsidy from Industry New Zealand.

The result is the new Wellnomics product suite, what Taylor calls an expert system which weights the risk factors in a workplace, calculates which employees are likely to get problems, and makes recommendations on how to mitigate them.

The product will be formally launched at an international ergonomics exhibition in Holland in July, but it is already drawing keen interest from existing WorkPace customers.

The core of the system will still be WorkPace, because the nub of the problem is still the time people spend at the computer.

WorkPace makes people take a break, perhaps to do some exercise of just to let the stress and tension roll away for a moment.

"Repetition doesn't cause RSI. The problem seems to be constrained posture and lots of tension," says Taylor.

"There are few jobs with a more restrictive range of movements than using a computer. As well as the arms and upper body, the head is kept at a fixed position to the screen, so there is eye strain as well."

Taylor doesn't discount ergonomics - his packages include ergonomics training, posture evaluation, workstation layout tips and so on - but there are other factors to be taken into account, like psycho-social factors.

"What happens to your muscle tension when you are under stress? It goes up. Stress has physical effects, so there are issues of fitness.

"Strong muscles are more resistant to fatigue," says Taylor.

So it may be a good idea to knock off work early and go for a swim.

The key, he says, is there are no simple solutions. Bodies are complex machines, and there is no such thing as a perfect posture.

"A comfortable chair is good, but some modern chairs may have 25 adjustment factors, and a chair that is adjusted wrong may be worse than a simple one.

"Ultimately ergonomic equipment is only an aid to get good posture, and people will go back to their old habits."

He does have good things to say about arm wrests (not wrist wrests), but mouse rests - bad idea. Almost as bad an idea as the mouse.

"Most mouse are too fast, so you need space. You should move them from the shoulder with large movements.

"When I work I move the screen right back on the desk and move my chair forward so my stomach is touching the edge of the desk, and I give myself room," says Taylor.

The Labour Department is also emphasising the importance of reducing stress in keeping RSI at bay.

Mike Cosman, the department's chief health and safety advisor, says control of psychosocial factors can have some influence in primary prevention of OOS.

Under the Health and Safety in Employment Act, employers are required to design computer work to be safe, monitor their employees' health and exposure to hazards and provide training.
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