A Home Office That's Easier On The Eyes And The Back

Ergonomics--the science of how people interact with their work environment--is becoming more than a buzzword as evidence mounts that desk jobs aren't as benign as they once seemed. Many ergonomists believe tailoring the office to human physiology can improve productivity--and the chances of continued health. You might want to apply some of their lessons to your home office. Don't worry, you needn't start redecorating: There are many ways to retrofit your existing office to make it more ergonomic.

Many ergonomists say the most important item in your office--and one place not to skimp--is a decent chair. A good ergonomic chair lets you sit with your thighs parallel to the floor and your feet flat on it. The seat should be horizontal but slope away at the forward end so there are no sharp edges cutting into the backs of your knees. The seat and back should adjust to your height, and the latter should support your lower back where your spine curves in.

IN ARM'S WAY. Although the best chairs are expensive--about $400 to $1,000 and up--the benefits make the investment worthwhile. "Buy quality chairs," says Bob Bettendorf, president of the Institute for Office Ergonomics, a Stamford (Conn.) management-consulting firm. "Cheap ones don't work."

The top office-furniture makers all build their own versions of ergonomic chairs. Some leading brands are the bulldog from Knoll ($870), the Criterion from Steelcase ($600), and the System 18 from Haworth ($752). Another type of chair, called "passively" ergonomic, often has fewer adjustments but is designed to flex along with your movements. The Equa ($800) by Herman Miller and Evo by American Seating ($902) fall into this category. Which chair you pick depends entirely on what feels best to you.

If you love the chair you already have, and it doesn't violate any basic ergonomic principles, you might consider modifying it with handy and inexpensive accessories, says Chris Grant, an ergonomics expert at the University of Michigan. You can buy foam or inflatable pillows to fill the lumbar curve in your lower back and footrests to anchor your feet. Some footrests, like old-fashioned sewing-machine pedals, rock up and down to flex leg muscles and improve circulation.

For anyone who talks on the phone while typing, a telephone headset is critical. "It prevents you from putting a death grip on your neck," says Grant. And because they leave your hands free, "headsets allow you to move, which is a primary principle of ergonomics." Headsets are sold primarily at office-supply and electronics stores and cost $80 to $100. Plantronics in Santa Cruz, Calif., sells a $246 model with a microphone that filters out background noise for people who work amid lots of hubbub.

Since the computer has become the heart of most modern offices and the alleged cause of numerous cases of repetitive stress injuries, its position and accessibility have become crucial. Ergonomists have determined that the top of the monitor should be at eye level or slightly below. "Otherwise, you're tilting your neck to read the top of the screen," says Bettendorf. Computer-accessory companies, such as Vision Vu in Tyler, Tex., sell modular slabs of plastic for $5.95 each that you can stack under your terminal to raise it, but a phone book or old dictionary may do just as well.

Better yet, get a new computer table. While stores such as SIS Human Factor Technologies in Londonderry, N. H., sell whole lines of ergonomic goods, most furniture companies offer some form of adjustable computer stand. Often, these have two separately adjustable pieces to raise the monitor and lower the keyboard.

PLANE GEOMETRY. Ergonomists say keyboards should ideally be used at elbow level. Keyboard design, however, is still being debated. Currently, ergonomists agree that your wrists are reasonably stress-free when extended in a straight line from your forearms. But some innovators think typing would be even more natural with your palms at angles to each other. Adjustable keyboards that allow this include the TONY! and the Comfort. These break up a regular keyboard into three pieces that can be turned at various angles.

Then there's the Kinesis, which divides the keypad between two recessed pits at the rear corners of the board. This keeps hands at shoulder width and repositions the keys normally manipulated by the weak pinkies, such as ENTER and BACKSPACE closer to the stronger thumbs.

Yet another keyboard, the Datahand, has two separate recessed hand prints. When you place your fingers there, they sink into little wells where they can activate different keys by moving forward, backward, to the left, or to the right.

Some ergonomists predict that such keyboards will be the wave of the future. For the moment, they're just beginning to build momentum. TONY! is still a prototype. Kinesis ($690 from Kinesis in Bellevue, Wash.) and Comfort ($590 from Health Care Keyboard in Menomonee Falls, Wis.) are coming out in a month or two, and DataHand ($1,200 from Industrial Innovations in Scottsdale, Ariz.) is available now.

Until such keyboards are more widely accepted, most people will probably get more value from simpler keyboard accessories. Proformix in Whitehouse Station, N.J., and Flex-Rest in Provincetown, Mass., both make keyboard holders that can be attached to the edge of your desk. These hold the keyboard just above your lap and angled slightly away from you. Although nothing is proven, some ergonomists think this position may help prevent carpal-tunnel syndrome, an ailment that irritates the nerves in the wrist when you type with your hands bending back toward the body.

Both holders can slide under the desk when not in use. And Proformix' product, Protex ($300), which won the 1992 Industrial Design Excellence Award, includes a built-in palm rest, document holder, and mouse pad. This last piece is placed above the keyboard so you don't have to keep reaching out to the side to use it, thus risking potential damage to your shoulder.

You can also buy a cushion that attaches to the front of your chair's armrests or to the front of your desk to support your forearms. This may be one way to take the pressure off your wrists while typing.

The least you can do is get a wrist rest, a soft panel that runs along the base of your keyboard. "People often misuse them," says Encino (Calif.) ergonomist Rani Leuder. Rather than leaning on them while typing, she says, people should rest their hands on them during brief breaks in typing. They cost about $20 in computer stores.

Other computer accessories play an ergonomic role as well. Document holders placed next to or below your screen will spare your neck and head a lot of twisting and turning. And keeping the document holder in the same plane as the screen, ergonomists say, will cut down on eye strain because you won't be continually refocusing as you look back and forth between the two.

UP AND AWAY. How well you see is also an important part of the ergonomic picture. Experts say the ideal lighting arrangement is a combination of indirect overhead and tabletop task lighting. Indirect overhead lighting is soft and doesn't cause glare. Task lights are designed to illuminate your immediate work area.

The most common problem is that "typical office lighting is much too bright," says Leuder. The easiest remedy is to remove a bulb or two from your overhead fixture and reposition your computer so no light falls onto the screen. To further cut down on glare, you can attach $55 parabolic louvers over your lights. These three-dimensional grids direct light downward--not to the side. In most home offices, the desk lamp will be more important. Rani Leuder likes the Luxo asymmetric task models ($150 to $260). These are designed to cast a shadowless light onto your desk and keyboard but not on your screen.

Another cure for glare is a screen that covers your monitor. Mesh screens ($50) work but can make the computer text slightly fuzzy. Glass or plastic screens ($90) are treated with an antireflection coating and are much clearer, but like a camera lens they pick up dirt and fingerprints easily.

Regardless of how your home office is outfitted, if you don't take frequent breaks, it may not matter how good your furniture is. The most important part of ergonomics may only cost you a change in habit.

       -- A proper chair is critical to a healthy office and hence probably worth the 
      $400-$1,000 investment. Cushions or foam padding can be helpful support for 
      your lower back
       -- Equip your phone with a headset if you talk and type. This saves your neck 
      and frees your upper body
       -- Position your computer so that the top of the terminal is at eye level or 
      slightly below and the keyboard is at elbow level. Books can lift your monitor, 
      and stowable racks can adjust your keyboard
       -- Use a wrist rest to support your wrists; may be especially helpful during 
      brief typing breaks
       -- Position your monitor to avoid glare on your screen. Consider a visorlike 
      hood for the top of your terminal or a mesh or glass antiglare screen
       -- Many offices are too bright. If drawing the blinds doesn't make your screen 
      easier to see, try removing some light bulbs from your overhead fixture or turn 
      it off altogther. A Luxo asymmetric desk lamp will light up your work area 
      without dimming your screen
       -- One of the best ways to avoid aches and pains is to take frequent breaks, 
      and fidget
      DATA: BW
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