Stay Healthy at Work and Don't Get Burned by the Ergonomic Fire Triangle
You may be familiar with the "fire triangle," a model that shows the three elements that, taken together, ignite a fire. (They're heat, oxygen, and fuel, in case Scout camp is as distant a memory for you as it is for me.) The ergonomics consulting firm Humantech has a similar model for identifying the three major risk factors that cause the most common work-related stress injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, DeQuervain’s Disease, tendinitis, back pain, and nerve damage. They call it the Ergonomic Fire Triangle, and the three elements are posture, force, and frequency. Together, these elements can ignite a firestorm of pain!
A common office posture involves slouching and slumping forward with rounded shoulders, which people do in order to get closer to the computer screen or worksurface. This position causes the head to come forward, appropriately known as "forward head posture," and leads to jaw pain, headaches, circulation problems, an increase in the body's release of stress hormones, and misalignment of the spine. Misalignment not only causes nerve damage and back and shoulder pain, but can even affect your rib cage, which in turn can damage your heart, lungs, and gastrointestinal system. So, pretty bad news all around. The more a joint deviates from the neutral position, the greater the risk of injury. And the more bad posture is ingrained, the harder it is to correct. (If you have children, be on the lookout for forward head posture in them as well, usually the result of computer time and heavy backpacks.)
To avoid forward head posture, ensure that your head is directly on your neck and shoulders, like a golf ball on a tee. If you've been slumping forward for a long while, you'll need to work pretty hard to correct your posture, including building up some muscles and stretching others. There are exercises and videos available online that can help, but it's best to see a chiropractor for personalized care. It is well worth making the effort to correct your posture now in order to avoid serious problems later.
Tasks that create excessive force on your joints can lead to fatigue and injury. In an industrial setting, these tasks might be pushing or pulling a heavy cart, lifting heavy weights, or manipulating awkwardly-shaped objects. But force can be a problem in office work as well. It may not seem like pressing keyboard buttons or clicking a mouse is all that forceful, but if you've used standard mice and keyboards, you are aware of the strain that can occur when you have to exert excess force. I use the Goldtouch V2 Adjustable Keyboard, which works for both Mac and PC. In addition to the soft keys, which reduce the force required to type, the V2 allows for personalized adjustability, with split and vertical tenting up to 30°. Soft keys mean it's also fairly quiet. Not "Silent Night" quiet, but definitely a huge improvement over the standard click-clacker I used in my previous un-ergo life. For a mouse, you could opt for something with zero force required, like a Mousetrapper Flexible, which eliminates gripping and clicking entirely.
The frequency leg of the ergonomic fire triangle refers to repeated motions that can ultimately lead to stress injuries like bursitis, carpal tunnel, tendinosis, and edema. In an industrial work setting, such as an assembly line, workers are at particular risk for this kind of injury, but it is regularly seen in office workers as well. There are several tasks office workers perform frequently, such as mousing, typing, and looking from a document to the computer screen and back. There isn't much that can be done about the regularity with which these duties must be performed, but the right equipment can go a long way towards reducing risk and alleviating pain. As with the force leg discussed above, the mouse and keyboard that are right for you can make a big difference in your long-term health and comfort. For example, using an ergonomic mouse such as the Evoluent Vertical Mouse reduces strain and fatigue by holding your hand in a natural handshake position. If much of your day is spent typing, you'll certainly benefit from an ergonomic keyboard. Many keyboards allow for varying degrees of split and tilt, letting you customize the keyboard to fit your specific needs. If you want to see something really crazy, check out the 90° tilt available on the Kinesis Freestyle 2!
The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that the cost of musculoskeletal injuries totals as much as $20 billion per year. So in addition to being costly in terms of our health, these injuries are hard on the wallet as well. It's a good idea to take care of your body and your bottom line by investing in some ergonomic products that make your life and your job easier.
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