Researchers rub, vibrate way to new ergonomics

I don’t know about you but if my mouse vibrated and my office chair massaged my back I wouldn’t get much work done.  But those technologies and more are part of newfangled ergonomic products being developed by Alan Hedge, an international ergonomics authority and his Cornell Human Factors and Ergonomics Research Group

That means the estimated 100 million people who now use computers in the United States may soon be using these products:  

  • Vibrating mouse: To see if a vibrating mouse could prevent upper extremity musculoskeletal disorders in computer users by signaling people to take their hand off the mouse to avoid overuse.  Researchers said that although subjects do remove their hands more often with a vibrating mouse than with a conventional mouse, they tended to hold their hand just above the mouse. "This position is potentially more detrimental because of a potential increase in static muscle activity required to hover the hand," Hedge said in a statement.  The conclusion is that users should rest their hands on a flat surface when they feel the vibration. 
  • Undulating chairs: Another study examined whether a seat that made a continuous massaging, wavelike movement at an adjustable rate would alleviate back pain in people whose pain increases when they are seated. Although their findings were mixed, researchers concluded that the movable seat was a concept with promise, particularly for individuals with back problems.  
  • Movable arms for monitors: A third study looked at how suspending a flat panel computer monitor on a movable arm affects people's comfort, posture and preference. Researchers found that people unanimously liked the monitor arm because they could adjust their LCD screen, and it gave them more room on their desktop for documents."We saw fewer complaints about neck problems and about the workstation because people had more space," says Hedge.  Users liked the versatility of the movable arm to show others what was on their screen, Hedge said.  

What has ergonomics researchers on edge is the younger onset of computer use and the current rate of compensatory damage claims, Hedge stated.  There is typically a 10- to 15-year latency before injuries start to develop, Hedge said in a release.  In the early 1990s he showed that the average age of workers reporting carpal tunnel syndrome was late 30s to early 40s; last year, he found the average age of onset had dropped to the mid-20s and even younger for some people.  

Still office ergonomics remain a bit of black magic for most office staffs.  Linda Musthaler, a Network World columnist recently wrote: This lack of attention to proper office ergonomics is taking its toll. At the end of the day, 40% to 50% of computer users report having some sort of pain, such as in their neck or shoulders or their wrists or hands. Experts who study these reported instances of pain are still debating the exact causes, but many point to poor posture or positioning relative to the computer as contributing factors.  Most large companies have an office safety department that studies such issues and recommends solutions to employees to eliminate or reduce the stress on muscles and other body parts.

The fact of the matter is, office ergonomics are a mysterious area. Although many research studies have been conducted over the years, there are few conclusions over what leads to worker’s pains. Some people have alleged that the design of devices such as keyboards and monitor screens cause problems, yet there is little to no scientific link between keyboard design and carpal tunnel syndrome or monitor design and eyestrain, Musthaler stated.

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