The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Monday, March 01, 2010

RSI Day Part 2: Fiddly fingers

So it's Monday morning and you've sat down at your desk for another week working away at your computer. Well, if you're at a desk with a proper screen, keyboard and mouse, then avoiding RSI is a relatively easy affair. It takes very little time to get your workstation set up correctly, only a bit of effort to think about your posture, and a little discipline to take regular mini breaks. With new developments in IT though, we seem to be moving further and further away from the rather chunky, but safe desktop towards smaller, more mobile but potentially less healthy alternatives.

I've talked before about the potential dangers of laptops, with their cramped setup; necessarily working too close to the screen, at an angle that's difficult to change, using a small keyboard and a truly horrible mousepad. But even that can be got around with a little bit of effort; see my February 2008 archive for some ideas or check out this link for an NHS Laptop Health guide.

Over the past couple of years though smaller, handheld devices, like Blackberries and iPhones seem to have become more and more popular. For many, they're no more than glorified mobile phones on which they can quickly check their e-mail or look up multimap to find an address. But I get the impression that for some people they're becoming a key part of their working day, to send full-length e-mails or to read whole documents. And that's a concern because their small size inevitably entails fiddly, awkward hand movements which when repeated over longer periods are going to cause RSI-type problems. As someone who already suffers from RSI, I'm particularly sensitive to those awkward little movements. I spent ages looking for a mobile phone with comfortably large and separated keys (a definite gap in the market, with older users on the increase). And when I've tried using other people's iPhones, as beautiful and sexy as they look, to me they set all kinds of alarm bells ringing. Whilst touch screen technology might feel like a more comfortable, natural development, when it's on a tiny little screen a few inches across, those awkward little repeated 'fingerbob' style movements are a recipe for disaster. And as for those miniscule little keypads, whoever thought that was a good idea?!

Yes, I know, I can hear you say that you don't use it very much, but how much is 'much'? These things creep up on you and and it can be quite easy not to notice just how much a part of your daily life something is becoming. Avoiding RSI type problems is hugely about self-awareness, being honest with yourself about just how long you're spending doing awkward, repetitive movements, looking at yourself objectively from the outside. So if you do nothing else, try and be a bit more aware of how you're working with IT this week, whether that's gripping your mouse too tightly, not taking enough breaks, craning your neck to see a laptop screen or spending too much time using your Blackberry or iPhone.

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Anonymous Nathan said...

Portable devices always seem to ignore ergonomics completely. That said, working on the move isn't a particularly ergonomically friendly thing in itself. I do have a laptop but I only ever use it if I have to work whilst on the move. And to be honest with you, I try to keep that to a minimum. There's simply not enough space on a train to plug in an external mouse and keyboard and without them, it doesn't take long for my wrists to start aching.

We've actually recently finished trialling a system where we get everyone in the office to stand up every couple of hours and stretch. I can't say that it was met with much enthusiasm but it's worked, because I've noticed people standing up to stretch on their own. We were trying to make people less self-conscious about stretching if they need to and we thought that the best way of doing so was to get everyone to do it together for a few months. Though most people just assumed I was being a sadist for making them do it...

The way I see it, even if you supply the adjustable monitor mount, the wrist rest, the chair, if you don't encourage people to take breaks or to use the equipment properly, you're no further ahead.

3:09 pm  
Blogger The Toblerone Twins said...

Thanks for your comments, Nathan.

I couldn't agree more that whilst having the right equipment and set-up is vital, if people aren't aware of the way they're working, it's all a bit wasted! Breaks, movement and variety are all really key to staying healthy if you use a computer all day.

I'm very that lucky that working from home, I can take breaks whenever I want and wander off to put the washing on or even lay myself out on the floor for some stretches. I first developed RSI when I was working in an office though and even though my colleagues were sympathetic, I found that I sometimes got odd/annoyed looks because I kept popping up from my desk. It's really good to hear someone encouraging it!

3:42 pm  

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