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There's No Place Like Home -- for Workplace Safety

By Catherine R. Holmes
Special to American Forces Press Service

DALLAS, Aug. 14, 2000 – People work at home for a variety of reasons. Some may telecommute to avoid a long drive. Others may work part-time before returning to the office after an illness or pregnancy. Whatever the reason, home-based work is a growing part of the employment scene -- and it's here to stay.

Many home-based workers don't think about workplace safety, yet the concerns that face employees at "regular" offices and businesses are just as real in the home. Although there are no current government regulations regarding home-based workplace safety, a few precautions can make the home office safer.

The explosion of computers in the workplace is probably the No. 1 reason for the growth of home-based offices. Following a few simple guidelines can keep the computer from becoming a source of injury or illness.

Set up your home office right from the start.

It's tempting to do the minimum when working from home -- put the computer on a dinette table and pull up a chair. Unfortunately, if your job requires long hours in front of the computer, this can become a recipe for injury. If your main home-based work involves extensive computer use, it pays to organize your workspace to maximize comfort and efficiency.

o First of all, place your computer on a standard-height desk or workstation, preferably one that's recommended for computers. These can be easily found at any office products store.

o Next, choose a standard, five-legged office chair. These chairs minimize the risk of injury over time by encouraging good posture and back position. In addition, their stability decreases the likelihood of injury from falling over backward. A good computer chair has a lumbar support, adjustable armrests, a slightly inclined backrest, a height-adjustable seat, and a high backrest or headrest. Also, be sure the chair fits you -- try it before you buy it.

o Third, work in an area with proper lighting -- bright enough to read your accompanying documents, but not more than 10 times brighter than the monitor. (Some researchers recommend no more than three times brighter.) Avoid glare on the screen and accompanying documents; if necessary, add a glare filter to the monitor. If possible, work with at least some natural light, which many people find decreases eyestrain. Be sure your monitor is in good shape. It may be time for a replacement if it flickers or has poor resolution.

Use Good Work Habits to Help Avoid Injury.

Now that your work area is set up properly, there are numerous ways to protect yourself from computer-related injury or illness. Paying attention to your body can head off problems from the start.

o First, let's tackle eyestrain, one of the most common computer-related ailments. Place the monitor and source documents so they are about the same distance from your eyes. Place monitors and documents so they are perpendicular to your line of sight to avoid character distortion.

Rest the muscles of your eyes by occasionally focusing on a distant object. When using a laptop, look into the distance more frequently. Standard laptop monitors are attached to the keyboard -- not necessarily the best placement for the comfort of your eyes.

If you wear glasses, consider getting full-frame reading glasses prescribed for a working distance of 20 to 30 inches. These will allow you to place the monitor correctly and see well without stressing your posture.

Don't let work be a pain in the neck.

Back and neck injuries and illnesses comprise another common set of problems from computer work. Long hours at the keyboard can contribute to a variety of back and neck ailments. Fortunately, several simple steps can be taken to reduce the likelihood of developing these problems.

o Choose a properly constructed office chair with good back and arm support. Change your body position periodically throughout the day. Use a document stand to reduce the amount of neck twisting or bending forward if typing from a source document.

Position your keyboard directly in front of you and at approximately elbow height. This should enable you to type with straight wrists. If this is not possible with the keyboard atop the work surface, use an adjustable-height keyboard tray.

o Rearrange the work area to avoid excess bending or stooping. Try to relax. Many injuries and painful episodes arise from continuously tensing neck and shoulder muscles while working.

Home office workers often become absorbed in work and fail to take occasional breaks because they are alone most of the time. Get up and walk around. In fact, consider increasing the exercise you get, because there seems to be a strong relationship between poor physical condition and workplace injury.

o Find a posture that's good for you. Although your work habits can contribute to back and shoulder pain, good posture is not a simple matter of finding the "right" position in which to sit. Even "poor" postures can prove comfortable if you don't remain in them for extended periods of time.

The last main area of illness and injury common to computer users is repetitive motion illnesses and cumulative trauma disorders. One of the most prevalent is carpal tunnel syndrome, which affects the hands. Repetitive, long-term keyboard use can inflame tendons that pinch and ultimately damage nerves running through the wrist bones to the hands. Although people have been using typewriters for over 100 years, the increasing use of computers -- with their faster keyboarding speed -- has led to a rise in repetitive motion illnesses.

(Catherine R. Holmes is the Army and Air Force Exchange Service occupational health manager.)

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