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11/96 Analysis: Windows at Work

Is Your PC Out to Get You? -- Make knowledge workers comfortable and they'll do a better job.

By Cheryl Currid

IS YOUR JOB a pain in the neck? You're not alone. Neck, back, wrist and eye strain are among the top complaints of today's computer users. They're finding new aches and pains in places that never hurt before. I know, I'm one of them.

Lower back problems are reaching pandemic proportions, with estimates indicating that one-third of the adult population is affected. Stiff necks and fatigued eyes are also common.

The number of cases and severity of ailments will likely increase. The early 1990s' uproar over computer-induced carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) and other repetitive stress injuries (RSI) was only a warm-up exercise.

Back then, OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) and the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported RSI cases tripled between 1984 and 1992-the same time PC use started proliferating in the workplace. CTS idled the typical affected employee 22 days, with surgical costs averaging $29,000 per wrist.

Just wait until the Web-weary masses start feeling the effects. Unless you ease workers' pain, expect more missed workdays, increased workers' compensation claims and even lawsuits.

It isn't easy to determine what is ergonomically correct, though. Lawmakers, experts and academicians all argue for a share of the spotlight, and their opinions vary widely. I found reports that recommended monitor placement anywhere from 18 to 40 inches from the eyes. And depending on which report you choose to believe, monitors should be tilted up 20 degrees or down 60 degrees. No kidding. You can move it up, down or all around and find expert confirmation.

OSHA has been trying to get a standard passed since its original mandate from the Bush administration in 1990. Last year, OSHA again offered a plan, but didn't win any friends. The National Coalition on Ergonomics campaigned against the proposal-calling it too broad-and Congress responded by cutting OSHA's budget.

You can find OSHA's checklist for workstation layout and video display units at and But don't take the draft standard as gospel; it's over a year old and its laws may never pass.

Elsewhere, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), a private nonprofit organization that coordinates U.S. voluntary standardization systems, has prepared an update to its 1988 standards for computer work area ergonomics. ANSI recommendations aren't law, but they're respected. You can expect furniture, lighting and computer makers to respond with compliant products-if the report ever comes out. The report was supposed to be released in October 1995, but rumor has it a series of private reviews and rewrites delayed it.

After reviewing several hundred pages of documents, I can summarize the whole mess with one acronym: NATO (No Action, Talk Only).

What's holding things up? Lawmakers fail (or fear) to tax businesses with compliance regulations, especially in an election year. You'll just have to take matters into your own hands.

Start by gathering information from neutral parties. A number of universities have unbiased reports. I like the ones from the University of Texas (, the University of Virginia ( and U.C. San Diego (

Create your own guidelines

You may have to make some judgment calls as to which guidelines to circulate. Include factors such as optimal lighting conditions, seat height, monitor position, keyboard height and so on. Some research recommends users shift positions often and take frequent mini-breaks. Whatever information you disseminate, make sure you include telecommuters.

Thinking of calling in an ergonomics expert? Good luck. Most have no certification, and some are sponsored by furniture makers or other groups likely to benefit by scaring you out of your wits and your budget dollars.

Sure, sifting through all the research is a pain, but the results are worth it. Your job (and that of your colleagues) doesn't have to be such a pain in the neck ... back ... head ... eyes ... or anywhere else.

WinMag Analyst Cheryl Currid is president of Houston-based Currid & Company, a research and consulting firm. Contact Cheryl in the "Windows at Work" topic of WINDOWS Magazine's areas on America Online and CompuServe. Cheryl Currid's e-mail ID is:

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