Crucial Tips for Safe Computer Use from Real-Life Experiences

A few QIP workers have learned working long hours on the computer can cause pain and injury, but have thankfully healed and discovered how to prevent future problems.

Some of us at QIP work from home, while others work on-site; in either case, we tend to spend much of the workweek pressing keys, grasping and clicking mice, gliding fingers on touchpads, and looking at screens. All of these activities put one at risk for problems that a QIP director, a graphic designer, and a writer/editor have experienced.

Luckily, some of the most common risks inherent to these types of activities can be mitigated by following a few key protocols. Though we are not doctors and are not offering medical advice, a sharing of information and resources, as well as an examination of our successes and lessons learned, may be helpful to other computer professionals.

Use proper ergonomics, and take breaks from the keyboard and mouse

Aches, pains, tingling, and numbing in the hands and arms can result from a poorly designed workstation. QIP Communications Director Deanna started experiencing those symptoms many years ago. She now practices proper ergonomics and other measures to remain healthy.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) provides a Computer Workstations eTool with a broad array of information about working at a computer safely. The site includes explanations of how to set up an ergonomic workstation, checklists for workers and employers who wish to evaluate workstations or purchase equipment, and best practices for avoiding the muscle damage that can result from repetitive use.

While there is a lot of information on the site, and computer professionals should be aware of all of it, here are a few tips we’d like to highlight:

  • Hands, wrists, and forearms should be in a straight line.
  • Elbows should be bent at between 90 and 120 degrees.
  • Feet should be flat on the floor or a footrest.
  • Throughout the day, take regular breaks from the computer.

The OSHA site includes helpful diagrams that illustrate proper ergonomics. Another source with a user-friendly diagram is the Computer Ergonomics page provided by the University of Michigan to advise students on safe computer use. A single, printable poster on this site illustrates proper workstation posture.

Both OSHA and the University of Michigan University Health Service warn that using laptops safely presents special challenges. According to the University of Michigan site, “Laptop computers are not ergonomically designed for prolonged use. The monitor and keyboard are so close together that they cannot both be in good positions at the same time. For prolonged use, it's best to add a separate monitor and keyboard.”

QIP Writer/Editor Liza started experiencing muscle pain as a result of non-ergonomic laptop use with insufficient breaks. She, with the help of QIP, invested in a new monitor, keyboard, mouse, and wrist cushion. These items help her maintain a healthy posture and maximize the comfort of her arms and hands. She also began taking breaks from the computer every one to two hours, as well as a lunch break away from her desk. She reminds herself to take breaks by setting an alarm each time she sits down to use the computer. Liza says, “The health of my arms and hands is important to my job—and to everything else I do. Investing a little money in ergonomic devices, and also being proactive about taking regular breaks, allows me to work as a computer professional without pain or problems.”

Deanna discovered that regular massage; arm, chest, and shoulder stretches as shown in this Prevention article on doorway stretching; orthopedic arm bands that compress the muscles; and a kneeling chair ease the pressure on her forearm muscles and alleviate her symptoms. Even proper hydration can make a difference in how her arm muscles feel, something she learned from her massage therapist. “I was initially misdiagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome. I later discovered that my issue has to do with the overuse of the muscles in my forearms,” Deanna says. “Regular massage has by far been the most effective element of managing my symptoms, but being mindful of how often and the manner in which I use my arms, and being aware of my posture, are crucial to my health.”

Position the monitor appropriately, and take breaks from screen viewing

Hands, wrists, arms, shoulders, backs, and legs are not the only parts of the anatomy that can be harmed by computers. Unfortunately, it is also common for modern professionals to experience eye pain or vision problems due to prolonged or nonergonomic screen viewing.

The OSHA Computer Workstations eTool contains information on how to safely use a monitor and how to avoid eye strain due to lighting and glare issues. Here are a few of the many recommendations OSHA gives:

  • The top of the monitor should be at or just below eye level.
  • The monitor should be at a right angle to a window with bright light.
  • Throughout the day, take regular breaks from looking at screens.

An article in The Atlantic on eye health contains information about how to protect your vision if you’re a heavy screen user like those of us who work with computers for a living. According to the article, experts offer this advice: “Take what they call a ‘20-20-20 break’: Every 20 minutes, give yourself 20 seconds to check out what's going on 20 feet away from you.”

QIP Senior Graphic Designer Jess got valuable advice from her eye doctor when she started experiencing vision issues. She says, “I now designate, within every hour, a few one-minute breaks when I do not look at any screen. Instead, I look out my window or go onto my balcony to simply look around.”

It can happen to you

It can be easy to dismiss health recommendations, to assume that they apply to other people, but not to you. Each of us at QIP who were harmed by computers had never dreamed that it would happen to us. However, if you work on a computer for a living, it pays—literally—to follow the protocols advised by experts. No one wants to miss work due to health reasons. And no one wants everyday life to be disrupted due to painful muscles or vision problems. Professionals who use a computer can mitigate or avoid many health issues by ensuring that the workstation is set up ergonomically and by taking regular breaks throughout the day.