Our Bodies, Our Workstations

Just as no man is an island, no one works alone anymore. Teaming up for collaborative projects seems the norm for administrators as well as students. Even when working on their own, more and more employees now sport two monitors on their desks. That’s when they’re at their desks, however. The continued proliferation of notebook computers, for staff and especially students, means that computing happens in the residence hall room, classroom, and everywhere in between. What does this new work paradigm mean for workstations and proper ergonomics?

More Products, More People, More Problems

“Monitors have come down in price so it is now common for administrators to have two on their workstations at once,” said Dr. Alan Hedge, professor in the department of Design and Environmental Analysis, Cornell University, where the double monitor is presently the de facto standard.“Now thinking about proper ergonomic placement has gotten more complicated.”

Dr. Hedge admits that workstations have not kept up with the newfound crowding well.“The flat-panel screens are mounted on articulating arms so users can adjust the equipment properly,” he said. “But workers still need to think about the placement of their keyboards and multiple mice.”

And they should think hard. Ergonomics, a science that gained popularity during World War II, has guided people to safer work conditions and healthier lives. As technology becomes more pervasive and users start employing products earlier, ergonomics grows more important. “In the 1990s the average age of a person seeking worker’s comp for a repetitive stress disorder was in their early 40s,” said Hedge. “Today it’s the mid 20s.”

Not only are these cases expensive, averaging “about $100,000 per instance,” according to Hedge, they are “one-hundred-percent preventable. The right equipment and the proper training can keep workers healthy and productive.”

Employers — under the threat of these expensive Worker’s Compensation cases — have, for the most part, risen to the occasion by providing workers with the equipment and training necessary to work safely. Schools, however, have lagged behind when it comes to their students. “I’ve tried to get universities to be more proactive about ergonomics,” continued Hedge, “but they feel that they are only ‘in loco parentis’ for 30 weeks a year and students aren’t doing that much computing anyway so they don’t take it that seriously.” However, it only takes a few litigious pupils to make a school stand up and take notice. “I’ve had a handful of students approach me with pain and a desire to sue the university,” said Hedge.

One place where Dr. Hedge feels heavy computing is supported appropriately is Cornell’s CL3 lab. Designed by Professor David Schwartz and colleagues, the lab houses videogame design classes along with students who need high-speed computers and extensive software for collaborative work. “We looked at other computer labs and saw multiple students hunched around a single screen,” remembered Schwartz. “We wanted to do something a bit more innovative.”

Instead of setting up the room in what Schwartz called “sardine fashion,” with students in columns and rows, curved desks are built to accommodate two students at a time. “Pair programming lets one student think and talk as the pilot while the co-pilot does the typing. Then they switch off,” he said. “This setup allows immediate peer review.”

Take It on the Run

While conceived and designed for collaborative work, the most popular spots at CL3 are two breakout tables where students sit with notebook computers. “I wish we had more breakout spaces,” said Schwartz.

That wish may become a necessity as more notebook computers show up on campuses around the country. “I’m starting a research project about students and notebook use this year,” said Professor Karen Jacobs, Department of Occupational Therapy, Boston University. While more notebooks may not mean better study habits (“a professor I know gave half her students notebook computers during class while the other half had regular pens and paper,” recalled Hedge. “The notebook students did worse. I suspect they were distracted by IMs and the Internet.”), their low cost and convenience guarantees their proliferation.

What does this mean for students who are, according to Jacobs, “using their notebooks everywhere from the dorm to the cafeteria to the classroom to the hallways? Sometimes there are two students working on one notebook or a student lying on her stomach and typing that way.”

Creating a safe environment for notebook use can be difficult. As they are “inherently ergonomically incorrect,” according to Herman Miller, Inc.’s research program manager Gretchen M. Gscheidle, notebook users must think about their bodies and invest in a few accessories. “External keyboards and mice help make long-term notebook use easier,” said Jacobs. “Risers that angle the keyboard are also helpful.”

All three professors agree that, as important as furniture is to ergonomic health, education remains paramount. “Training and equipment go hand-in-hand,” insisted Hedge. “You wouldn’t give a person a car without teaching them to drive.”

Hedge is reaching out to students in a variety of ways. Along with his ergonomic Website (http://ergo.human.cornell.edu), he is offering podcasts on topics like “How to use a laptop in a dorm room or library.” “Appropriate education overcomes a lot of problems,” he said.

“Taking breaks is also important,” continued Jacobs. “There is free software that monitors your computer use and tells you when to take a break. It even suggests stretches to do during those breaks.”

“I’m flummoxed as to why parents aren’t up in arms about this,” concluded Hedge. “Students are more productive if they are comfortable. Training is important but it’s not everything.” To illustrate, Hedge goes back to his car analogy. “A student may know how to drive but you wouldn’t give him a car with bald tires. Universities have tremendous buying power and they charge fees for a myriad of services. Why not lease ergonomic furniture to students?”

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