Calling a Product "Ergonomic" Doesn't Make It So.
The Trouble with Ergonomics
In response to the rising number of repetitive strain injury (RSI) cases, marketers are now plastering the magic word ergonomic on every computer product off the assembly line. Some go even further, claiming their products cure carpal tunnel syndrome, a common form of RSI, which can be permanently disabling in some cases.
Obviously, just because a manufacturer claims a product is ergonomic doesn't make it so. In fact, some designs that flaunt this word actually heighten your risk of injury.
GETTING DOWN TO DEFINITIONS
What does ergonomic mean? It depends on whom you talk to. One brochure used the egg carton as an example of ergonomic design because the carton is built to fit around the egg. Well, yes – except unlike eggs, people can move.
The U.S. Department of Labor describes ergonomics as the study of work, a laudable endeavor. But you can study until the cows come home and not improve the lot of the hapless workers who use dangerous tools at painfully uncomfortable workstations.
Others say ergonomics is about improving productivity. In fact, striving for productivity often pushes people into injury because it increases speed, repetition, static loading (holding still), and stress-all risk factors for RSI. If you install a state-of-the-art workstation but don't take regular breaks, have poor posture, or work beyond your limits, you're still at risk for injury.
A better definition comes from the man who wrote the book on ergonomics. "The word ergonomics derives from the Greek ergon, meaning work, and nomos, which is best translated as natural law or system," wrote Etienne Grandjean in "Fitting the Task to the Man." According to Grandjean, the primary aim of ergonomics is to optimize the functioning of a system by adapting it to human capacities and needs.
The clear implication is that tools should be designed for humans, rather than forcing humans to contort themselves around ill-designed tools. Also implicit is job design: The human body was simply not designed to sit still all day, pecking out clicks and keystrokes with fingers.
Misunderstanding ergonomics can lead to ludicrous results. The human resources manager of a large corporation once insisted that "laptop computers were designed ergonomically to rest on people's laps." The laptop computer is inherently antiergonomic, because any way you cut it, posture is compromised. If you put the laptop where the screen falls within proper viewing range, the keyboard is too high. Put the keyboard at the right level, and you must duck your head to read the screen.
How do you ferret out the truly ergonomic design from the faux?
ERGONOMICS IS NOT ENOUGH
Computer-related RSI has many risk factors. Upgrading equipment is only part of the solution. You also have to change your habits. Your body was designed to move, not sit all day, so you need to get out of your chair regularly, stretch, and walk around for five minutes every half-hour or so.
Being out-of-shape doesn't help, either. For the strenuous work of computing, your muscles should be as toned and flexible as an athlete's. Not only that, you need excellent seated posture to prevent upper body injury: Your wrists should be straight, fingers gently curved as you float over the keyboard. However, even with good technique, movements repeated ad nauseam can be dangerous, which brings us back to the need for breaks.
In short, ergonomics alone won't protect you from RSI. So when a company proclaims its product is ergonomic, take that as a sign that a scam may be in progress.