Preventing Work-related Injuries: Computers

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Who's using computers?

Most jobs these days, especially those done by women, use some kind of computer. Computers are now in office work, retail and service jobs, accounting work, graphic design, data processing and on many assembly lines. Portable computers also are more common “on the road” or at an office.

What are the common hazards of computer work? What causes them?

The most common hazards are visual problems, soft tissue injuries, and stress.

Visual problems

Eye symptoms related to computer use include:

  • stinging, itching or gravelly sensation;
  • irritation;
  • feeling tired;
  • light sensitivity;
  • redness;
  • blurred or double vision; and
  • temporary myopia (cannot see distant objects clearly right after computer use).

Eye muscles get tired if you stare on a computer screen for a while. If your monitor is near a window, your eyes will get tired trying to adjust to the difference between brighter outside light levels and the monitor's glow.

Computer work slows down the blinking rate, so eyes can dry out. Glare, light levels and screen colours and contrast also are important. Bifocal and progressive lenses may not let you see the screen without straining eyes or neck and shoulder muscles, which can lead also to soft tissue injuries.

Soft tissue injuries

Some of the most common injuries linked to computer work show up in the wrist, arm, shoulders, neck, back and/or legs. Also known as repetitive strain injuries (RSIs) or musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), they are the result of badly designed and/or organized work, such as:

  • uncomfortable chairs without proper support;
  • poorly-placed monitors, keyboards and/or mouse;
  • lighting problems;
  • low or high work surfaces;
  • lack of breaks and variety; and
  • work pressure and pace.

Too often, computers are put on a regular desk, with no planning. Laptops cause more problems since they can be put anywhere and their keyboards cannot be detached from the screen.

These factors combine to force women into cramped working spaces using awkward or static (staying still) postures, doing repetitive work, without proper breaks, in stressful conditions.

Stress

It's stressful to be tied to a computer all day. Lack of control, high workload demands (mental and physical) and little support are key workplace stressors. Women may also face stresses related to hours of work, juggling family, work and other responsibilities, harassment/violence, pay levels and even being monitored (watched) electronically by the employer.

Stressors cause mental, physical and behavioural symptoms that may become long-term problems.

How can women avoid problems from computer work?

Legally, employers must provide healthy and safe work spaces for all employees. Employers are in the best position to make necessary changes to prevent injuries. But sometimes individual workers and/or their unions must argue for changes.

For the rising number of women who are self-employed, the responsibility rests on the women themselves to ensure their workspace is set up to avoid work-related injuries.

To prevent computer-related problems, consider both your computer workstation and its surroundings.

For your workstation, you need:

  • all of your body in a neutral, relaxed position;
  • your feet flat on the floor;
  • an adjustable chair that moves easily;
  • your back supported in the curved lumbar area (not below it), in a reclined posture of 100-110 degrees (not the upright 90 degree posture that is often shown);
  • your monitor about arms' length away (the larger the size, the further away);
  • to look straight ahead, eyes focussed about 2 - 3 inches/5.5 - 8.5 cm below the top of the monitor;
  • glasses that don't force you into awkward postures;
  • a keyboard on a flat (not tilted) tray within easy reach, that can be adjusted for height;
  • your keyboard height and design so that your wrists are straight - up/down and sideways;
  • your mouse nearby, about the same level as the keyboard;
  • arms close to your body, with shoulders, neck and head in a relaxed position; and
  • space for the equipment, papers and tools you use, within easy reach.

In your workplace in general, you need:

  • adequate background light and brighter task light close to you;
  • to avoid glare from overhead lights or windows (e.g. don't sit looking at a window or within 1.5 m of one);
  • space in which to move around;
  • regular breaks (10 minutes every hour is often recommended and in union contracts);
  • opportunities to be creative, do different things, talk to others, and go to the washroom as needed
  • reasonable hours of work; and
  • to avoid other stressors.

If you already have a computer, ask yourself:

  • How much space do you have to work with?
  • What needs to fit in it, at what distance?
  • What surface cannot be adjusted (e.g. the desk top) -- start from this point to make adjustments -- and how can I change others (e.g. lower the monitor, use a foot rest)?
  • If you sit in your usual way and try to relax, what do you want to do (e.g. drop your shoulders, put your feet on the floor, bring your arm closer to your body)?

It's also good to:

  • Find out what's happening to other people. There are tools you can use, such as surveys and body maps.
  • Report problems to your employer, union, health practitioner and compensation board; and
  • Take care of yourself when your job affects your health.

Where can I go for more information?