What Freelancers Must Know About Ergonomics

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Some professions can be dangerous to your health. These include fire fighters, oil riggers, those serving in the armed forces, and even electricians. These professionals don’t take the danger for granted. They use special equipment and procedures to minimize the risk.

As a freelancer, you also spend your days doing activities that risk your health: sitting on a chair, typing, using a mouse, and looking at a monitor. Fortunately, the risk of injury when doing these seemingly safe activities for a prolonged time is becoming better known. And like those more dangerous jobs, there is equipment and techniques that help you minimize the risk.

Ergonomics is the science of work. It looks at ways of fitting the work to the user, rather than fitting the user to the work. Chris Adam’s simple definition is that “ergonomics makes things comfortable and efficient.” He goes on to say, “Ergonomics is commonly thought of in terms of products. But it can be equally useful in the design of services or processes.” In this article, we will look at both products and techniques that help.

The science of ergonomics is a very young field, and is subject to a lot of variability. Every person is built differently so it is hard to develop universal guidelines. I’d love to have your input in the comments about what works for you and what doesn’t.

Sitting on a chair

Sitting improperly or for extended periods in a chair can lead to lower back pain and deep vein thrombosis.

To reduce the risk, it is recommended that you sit in an ergonomic chair with adjustable height and an adjustable back rest. Preferably the arm rests should be at a height that supports your elbows as you type. Commonly recommended ergonomic chairs include the Aeron chair, the Verte ergonomic office chair, and the Swopper chair. To make sure that your feet take the weight of your legs, you may want to consider purchasing a footrest. Alternatives to an ergonomic chair include Pilates balls and knee chairs.

Helpful techniques for sitting include:

  • Place your feet flat on the floor.
  • Make sure your knees form a 90 degree angle.
  • Ensure that your seat does not put any pressure on the back of your knees.
  • It is normally recommended that your back and shoulders should be straight, though an interesting BBC article recommends a 135 degree angle.
  • Make sure your back is fully supported by the back rest.
  • Change positions regularly – shift your weight.
  • Take regular breaks.
  • Stand up for a while when possible.

Deep vein thrombosis occurs when blood clots form in the veins – usually in the leg – after period of inactivity. The best way to avoid DVT is to stay fit, and make sure you stand up and move away from your desk regularly. You can learn more about DVT at:

Typing

Prolonged typing can cause RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury), Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, and tendonitis.

To reduce the risk of damage, consider purchasing an ergonomic keyboard. Common examples are the Microsoft Natural Keyboard, the Kinesis Contoured Keyboard, and the Goldtouch Split Keyboard. A good keyboard tray may help you position the keyboard at the correct distance and angle. Many people recommend palm rests as relieving pain from typing, but others report concerns about using them.

Your typing is also greatly affected by the desk you sit at – especially its height. Your desk should be level with your abdomen. With your desk at the right height, your arms should form a right angle at your elbow as you type.

Helpful techniques for typing include:

  • Position your keyboard so that the alphabetic keys are centered in front of you.
  • Make sure that your keyboard is centered in front of your monitor so that you don’t have to twist your kneck to see it.
  • Don’t bend or twist your wrists as you type – keep them in line with your arm.
  • Type in a relaxed way – don’t tense up.
  • Learn to touch type with the correct technique and hand posture.
  • Keep your weight off your forearms. Prolonged weight on the nerves in your arm will cause pain.
  • Take micro-breaks (10 or 20 seconds every five or ten minutes), and ten minute rest breaks every hour.

Smokers tend to be better at taking frequent breaks than the rest of us. Rather than taking up smoking, I recommend that you drink a lot of water. It’s hard to say no to an urgent toilet break!

One solution for safer typing has a big learning curve: learn to use the Dvorak keyboard layout. The Qwerty layout was purposely designed to be awkward to slow down typists in the early days when typewriters couldn’t keep up with a fast typist without mechanical problems occurring. The Dvorak layout has the opposite design – the most common letters are placed on the home keys to make typing not just faster, but easier on your hands.

And if you’re experiencing numbness, tingling, or weakness in your wrists, don’t just rely on good technique. Take Vitamin B. And visit your doctor!

Using a Mouse

Prolonged use of a mouse causes similar problems to prolonged typing. Studies report that the mouse may cause more damage than the keyboard.

You can minimize the risk of this by using an ergonomic mouse. Both Logitech and Microsoft have a good range. You may wish to consider using a mouse mat with a wrist rest, though like keyboard wrist rests, these are a little controversial. Try one out for yourself. Many people prefer using a trackball or trackpad instead of a mouse, but it is a matter of personal preference. If you do a lot of graphical work, you should consider a tablet.

Helpful techniques for using a mouse include:

  • Minimize the use of the mouse by learning keyboard shortcuts.
  • Switch between the keyboard and mouse as little as possible.

Looking at a monitor

Looking at a monitor for prolonged periods of time can cause eye strain and headaches.

Use an LCD screen with good contrast, and as large as practicable. Consider mounting it on a monitor arm so that you can more easily adjust its position.

Helpful techniques for viewing a monitor include:

  • Position your monitor to avoid glare.
  • The top (or middle) of your monitor should be at eye level.
  • Your monitor should be centered directly in front of you.
  • Your monitor should be placed an arm’s length in front of you.
  • From time to time focus on an object in the distance.
  • Take plenty of breaks.
  • If you use more than one monitor, position them so you can see them with a minimum of neck movement.

Further Comments

Laptops tend to be less ergonomic than desktop computers. For starters, it is difficult to have a laptop screen at eye level while the keyboard is at desk level. Consider using a desktop computer as your main workstation, or consider placing your laptop on a stand with the monitor at an appropriate height, and use an external keyboard and mouse.

If you find it difficult to take breaks, consider using software designed to encourage this. Some options are Work Pace for Windows, Workrave for Windows and Linux, and AntiRSI for Mac OSX. If the nagging adds more stress than it relieves, maybe this type of software isn’t for you! I’ve been using Workrave while writing this article, and have found the reminders helpful. I have set the timer to remind me to take a 20-second microbreak every eight minutes, and a ten-minute rest break every 50 minutes. It’s worked. And I took less spontaneous breaks, because I knew a rest break was coming up.

Bear in mind that ergonomic solutions are only part of solving the problem. Maintaining your health may require a change in diet and more exercise. Vitamin and calcium supplements may also help, as well as a decrease in your caffeine intake.

If you would like to learn more specific ergonomic techniques, the Feldenkrais Method and Alexander Technique are widely recommended.

Further information on ergonomics and healthy computing can be found at:

Evaluate Your Workspace

The US Occupational Health and Safety Administration have a helpful website that includes checklists for

  • analyzing your existing workspace (3 pages), and
  • evaluating new purchases to enhance your workspace (4 pages).

I recommend you print both PDF worksheets and give your workspace a full evaluation. There are helpful links for each point that give advice and recommendations on how you can improve.

As I researched and typed this article, I became “painfully” aware of the failings of my own workspace. I discovered that I lean forward too much, and when I tried tilting my chair back to 135 degrees, my feet didn’t touch the floor. Also, the desk I am currently using is a little too high.

I’m also concerned about my use of a laptop at home. I use a desktop computer with a fairly good keyboard and mouse during the day, but I am spending more time typing at night on this laptop. I’m considering whether to set up a desktop computer in my home office or mount my laptop on a stand and use an external keyboard and mouse.

On a positive note, I’ve noticed very little mouse use. I favor keyboard shortcuts wherever possible, and on my laptop I use a trackpad instead of a mouse.

How does your workspace measure up?

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