The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Thursday, February 28, 2013

RSI Awareness Day: A touch of discomfort

Today, 28 Feb,  is International RSI Awareness Day, so it’s time for my annual reminder to look after yourself at your desk. In previous years, as well as reiterating the basics of ergonomic workstation set-up, I’ve written about the importance of taking regular breaks, the joys of working on paper, the dangers of eyestrain, working safely on a laptop and the potential dangers of mobile devices. This year, I’m returning to the last of these, and in particular, to touchscreen technology.

A couple of months ago, I finally gave in and got my first smartphone. As an RSI sufferer, I’ve been conscious of my tech-life balance since long before it became a buzzword, so I’m not a one for gadgets. I do the hours I have to at my computer for work, then I like to log off completely. As many of my friends know, my mobile is often sitting in the kitchen out of earshot, and often still there when I’m not in the house! Just before Christmas though my trusty old phone, with nice big buttons, finally gave up the ghost and I got a shiny new smartphone to replace it. Having occasionally used my partner’s iPhone, I wasn’t a fan of touchscreens, finding them fiddly, awkward and frustrating, and what’s worse, quite uncomfortable when my hands were bad. People kept telling me that you get used to it and I have to admit, I have … a bit. I’ve tried to adopt the advice given by a friend with chunky fingers and I try not to be too precise with the silly little touch keyboard. He suggested that it’s best to just ‘hit and hope’ and let the predictive text sort out the mess. It does work to an extent, although I’ve sometimes found myself inadvertently deleting a whole message or sending a half-finished one when I’ve hit the wrong ‘button’.

But it’s not sending the odd text that really concerns me in terms of health, it’s the more prolonged use of touchscreen gadgets - smartphones and tablets - that involves lots of awkward, repeated movements of the fingers and thumbs, not to mention slightly awkward wrist positions in the way that people hold devices. Especially with the tiny screens on smartphones, as soon as you do more than check the time, you find yourself having to make lots and lots of very small movements, that because of the accuracy required tend to involve a rather tense hand posture. It’s a classic risk situation for putting strain on the tendons in your hand which over time can so easily lead to cramps and stiffness, then pain and worse-case scenario, permanent damage.

Of course, I can hear you all saying, but I don’t use my phone/tablet for prolonged periods, I only have the occasional check. … Are you sure? If you’re anything like my friends or the people I see around me, you’re probably using it more than you think. It’s become so much a part of people’s lives, that they’re just not conscious of it. Try just for today counting how many times you pick up your phone and how many movements you make each time you “just check”.

And it’s not just gadgets, with the appearance of Windows 8, an increasing number of laptops and pcs are becoming touchscreen. Because the screens are larger, they’re less fiddly and with more text per screen, they obviously don’t involve the constant scrolling motion needed on a smartphone. They do, however, bring their own risks, especially in terms of desk set-up. Any ergonomist will recommend that you have the top of your screen at eye level so that you’re not looking down and putting strain on your neck. They’ll also advise you to have it at least arm's length away as the best focal distance to avoid eyestrain. Even working on a laptop, as I am at the moment, I have it propped up on books so that the screen’s in the right position as well as using a separate keyboard and mouse.
That, of course, makes for a very awkward stretch though if you need to touch the screen, raising your arm to a level that will soon cause shoulder strain and leaning towards the screen in a posture to make any physio cringe!
Touchscreens may seem sexy and intuitively, ‘easier’ to use, but I’m yet to be convinced that they’re good for us.

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