Security

10 IT health risks -- and how to combat them

IT might not appear to be a high-risk field, but a surprising number of ailments can plague IT pros in all job roles. Here are some of the most prevalent health concerns.

Everybody seems to understand that movers and construction workers can have serious back and neck problems from their strenuous work. But when you sit at a desk most of the day, people aren't necessarily as sympathetic when you moan and groan about your spine, your sore throat, or your mood. Based on anecdotal evidence gathered in various workplaces, here are the top ailments people in a typical IT office may face.

Note: This information is also available as a PDF download.

#1: A slug's life

When the only body part you move in your job is your mouse finger, you just have to take fitness into your own hands. Do you have to train for a marathon to lose some weight? Not at all, according to Dr. James Levine of the Mayo Clinic. He found that the time spent sitting was more likely to correlate with weight gain than the lack of vigorous exercise. You can keep slim, according to Levine, by walking slowly (about 0.7 mph) two to three hours a day.

Although few of us can stroll around the neighborhood that long, several companies have developed workstations with treadmills attached so you can pseudo-walk while you check your e-mail or debug code. It all makes CNET's Mike Yamamoto wonder if there's a conspiracy to tether workers to their desks. (You can download several tools from TechRepublic to help you evaluate and manage your weight, including a body mass index [BMI] calculator.)

#2: SIT happens

Weight gain can creep up on you, but it's not an emergency in itself. A much more serious hazard of office work is seated immobility thromboembolism (SIT). This problem occurs when blood clots form in the legs (deep vein thrombosis) or lungs (pulmonary embolism) in people who spend a long time sitting. People may develop these clots while on a long trip, if they don't get out of the car or stroll around in the plane's cabin a bit. CNET noted the risk of deep vein thrombosis increasing back in this 2003 article. More recently, results of a New Zealand study suggested that a sedentary job may double the risk of developing clots in the legs (DVTs) or, even more dangerous, clots in the lungs.

#3: So many headaches

From the flicker of fluorescent lights to the hunched-up debugging posture, the conditions of your cube farm conspire to cause headaches. Pagers, end users, and the threat of outsourcing provide additional stress to kindle a dandy migraine or tension headache. Downing Tylenol or ibuprofen several times a week can backfire by making your pain more tenacious. If you get in a pattern of frequent headaches, see a doctor to get out of the rut.

You may have tension headaches, which can be treated with massage or stretches to help relax your muscles. Migraine is another possibility. Even if you don't have the visual disturbances (auras) that are the hallmarks of a "classic" migraine, you may have a common migraine. The good news is that there are many medications you can try to treat and prevent migraines. Although some are quite expensive ($25 or more per dose), treat the headaches aggressively. Migraines can affect your mood, your threshold of pain, and perhaps even your risk of stroke.

#4: The bobblehead syndrome

Do you nod off frequently at your desk and perhaps even have brief dreams? These episodes, called microsleeps, may indicate you're sleep deprived. It's natural for the human body to crave a siesta after lunch, but excessive daytime sleepiness needs to be treated. Most adults need seven to eight hours of sleep a night, so simply going to bed earlier may be all you need.

If you're in the sack long enough but are still tired, consider your environment (a snoring spouse, a hot or cold room). Crying babies and pagers can jar you out of sleep and seriously disrupt normal sleep cycles. Sleep apnea is a fairly common but scary-sounding problem: People with the disorder briefly stop breathing, often hundreds of times a night, which disrupts normal sleep phases. Physical abnormalities that cause excessive snoring can also lead to poor sleep. So check with your doctor, who may refer you to an ear, nose, and throat specialist or sleep clinic to sort out your sleep problems.

#5: Hurting hands

Although your hands and wrists may be sore from intensive typing, there's not a whole lot of evidence to link keyboard use to carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS). A 2007 study of men who worked at video display terminals found an association of CTS with high body mass index (BMI) and job seniority -- but not with specific tasks related to computer usage. Still, many conditions other than CTS can make your hands and wrists hurt, so it's wise to check with your doctor to try to get some relief.

Severe carpal tunnel syndrome is usually treated with surgery, but many other conditions that cause hand pain don't require such drastic treatment. Tendonitis, for example, is a fairly common cause of hand pain that may be treated with anti-inflammatory drugs (such as ibuprofen or naproxen) and splinting.

#6: Relax harder!

How is it that sitting on your chair and looking at a monitor can make your back, neck, and shoulder muscles feel like you've spent eight hours painting a ceiling? Your tense posture may be part of the problem. Improving the ergonomics of your work area may help take the stress off your upper body. Try not to transfer the tension in your mind to your muscles and take a break now and then to unclench.

#7. Noxious invaders

The dry air of a typical office certainly doesn't help your immune systems ward off your coworkers' coughs, but hey, at least you're not sitting in a daycare center. There are hundreds of cold viruses, plus several influenza viruses each year. What can you do to stay healthy and help keep your coworkers healthy, too?

No replicable scientific studies have proven that vitamin C, Echinacea, or zinc will prevent or shorten colds, but many people swear by them.

As far as gastrointestinal illness goes, remember that the most common transmission route is fecal-oral. So, for God's sake, wash your hands after going to the restroom. Also, consider the effective, but possibly neurotic, act of opening the door with a paper towel when you leave.

#8: Eye strain

Watching a backlit screen two feet away for four hours at a time isn't really natural, is it? So it's no surprise that people in IT complain about irritated eyes and declining visual acuity. Here are some suggestions that may help:

  • Remember to blink. Yes, blinking is pretty much automatic, but some people really keep their eyes peeled when they're engaged in work. Their eyes dry out, which is extra hard on people who wear contact lenses. A few drops of artificial tears can make your tired eyes much more comfortable.
  • Change your focus. Look out the window or down the hallway -- anything to get away from your two-foot focus. There are even programs designed to remind you to give your eyes a break.
  • Get an eye exam. Your doctor may have more tips to help you feel more comfortable as you work. And everyone needs to be screened for glaucoma and other eye diseases anyway.

#9: Heavy lifting

If your job requires you to lift, lower, and/or carry equipment around, you might find yourself battling back pain. Maybe you spend your days installing workstations or inserting/removing computers from racks -- and if you're used to the work and know the right way to protect yourself in the process, you might not have any problems at all. But if it's an occasional task, or if you don't follow some basic precautions, you could wind up with a painful injury or chronic back trouble.

Despite the fact that best practices for lifting are largely common sense, people often ignore them -- and often wish they hadn't. Here are some basic recommendations for protecting your back:

  • Examine an object before you try to pick it up to determine how awkward and heavy it is. Tip it a little to test its weight and make sure you have a comfortable, secure way to grip it.
  • If you think an object might be too heavy for you move, find an alternative: Get someone to help you, unpack or dismantle the object and move it in pieces, use a dolly, etc.
  • Don't extend your arms when you pick up or lower a heavy object. That puts a big strain on your back.
  • Watch your footing -- the last thing you want to do is stumble or trip while carrying something heavy.
  • Lift correctly. Keep your straight back, kneel to pick up the object, and then lift using your leg strength, not your back.

#10: Something in the air

If you work on a lot of systems, you're no stranger to dust. Even a well-maintained machine in a clean, ventilated area is going to pull in plenty of it. And if you work on customers' computers or make a lot of workstation calls, you're going to feel like Tom Joad before long.

This may not faze you at all, but if you're like many techs out there, it could spell big-time allergy, respiratory, and sinus woes. Among the suggestions from veteran dust-sensitive IT pros: Put on a dust mask before opening a case (or crawling around under a grubby workstation). And if you plan to use compressed air to blow some of the dust out of the case, definitely mask up first. You might also want to consider vacuuming that dust out rather than blowing it around -- but you should use an ESD (electrostatic discharge) safe vacuum designed for electronics.

15 comments
patclem
patclem

Um, opening the door isn't a neurotic activity. Healthcare professionals are trained to do that. It keeps your clean hands from being contaminated by those that don't wash their hands. Notice in most bathrooms the proximity of the garbage can to the exit, so you can throw your paper towel away after you've opened the door with it. Notice that bathroom doors are almost all pull - you can't push the door open with your elbow or foot. Knock on wood, but I haven't been sick in years, but I also started exercising regularly a few years back (bicycle riding)

Master G
Master G

I'm avoiding all those - Since college I knew that I was gonna be stuck in a chair and some occasional trips to the server room. Well, I take a break from time to time. Since my time and duties are not really that strict, I get to walk and breath some fresh air. The only thing I was getting from that list was the headaches, bright screens. But still have my 20/20 vision :). Take your breaks and look away every 20 minutes.

dennis.esteban
dennis.esteban

What about IT professionals that deal with wireless networks? Not all waps are indoor/low-power. Some wireless links are outdoor and long-range using high gain antennas. Performing antenna alignment in an antenna farm on a sky rise can be dangerous too :)

rwbilly
rwbilly

Very interesting and helpful article.

techtalk
techtalk

I don't like the statement "It???s natural for the human body to crave a siesta after lunch" ... this is only true if you do the typical giant american lunch of burger, fries and sugar water, or some equivalent. Most people I work with (and me too until a few years ago) would also admit that was their first meal of the day. It's your body processing this insane and out of place influx of fat and carbs - the crash from the carbs and morning caffeine starts it, and then going into gear to process the fat completely finishes you off. Since I switched my diet to more natural grains and lean protein, minimizing carbs and sugar (no soda) and eating smaller meals at regular intervals - lunch is usually my third 'meal' of the day - i am actually more energized in the afternoon than i am immediately before lunch. It definitely helps to get off your keister for a walk after lunch too; especially if you eat at your desk as I do most days.

diane.corey
diane.corey

so true. I used to smoke, and taking the smoking breaks really helped with tense muscles and giving the brain a break and ironically break time was when I would get a lot of ideas. Now I am trying to stay quit, and finding that I have to make myself get up and walk around which helps to get the blood moving and the mind and eyes rested for 5 minutes.

alfalfa31
alfalfa31

You left out hangovers and caffeine addiction.

Justin James
Justin James

I used to be famous for "micronaps" 1 - 5 minutes long, and my body used to be wracked with most of the pains you describe. In the last year, I have put myself on a strict diet and a rigorous exercise plan. I've lost nearly 30 lbs., went from over 25% body fat to just over 8% body fat, tripled my lifting weight across the board, quadrupled my stamina in various cardio activities... in short, I have completely revolutionized my body. The odd result? I am feeling a LOT less pain and aches, and I can concentrate better. The only thing I've done which has been as helpful to my concentration was quitting smoking last year (stopping work once an hour was a total killer to my productivity). J.Ja

Justin James
Justin James

A few years ago at work, I heard the toilet flush from a one-person women's room and 2 seconds later the occupant emerged. I watched her go striaght to her desk, through many doors. I caught up with her and said, "that's really disgusting, you didn't wash your hands." You know what she said? "Oh, that's OK, I use hand sanitizer here at my desk." I asked her, "what about the doorknobs that you touched along the way?" She said, "that's why I use hand sanitizer at my desk instead of washing my hands in the bathroom, my hands will just get dirty again on my way back." It didn't even occur to her that hundreds of people were being exposed to *her* germs due to her laziness. I love the twisted thinking behind it, too. J.Ja

T.Walpole
T.Walpole

Agreed, but I don't think the risk injury from climbing antenna towers would affect most IT workers. Just my guess, but that's probably why it didn't make the top 10.

Justin James
Justin James

I used to have the same thing happen to me... "breakfast" was a half pot of coffee, black. My first calories would come from dropping a Whopper meal (or its Hardee's or McDonald's equivalent) on my stomach. Not only was I gaining weight at the rate of 25 lbs. per year, but I'd be knocked out (sometimes literally, I'd take a nap in my car!) for a while afterwards. Now, I eat completely differently. I start my day with whole grains and fruit, my lunch is light and filled with whole grains, and afternoon snack is a piece of fruit, I lift weights or jog as well around that time usually, and dinner is also light, low fat, and well balanced. More fruit for snacks in the evening, a bowl of a high fiber hot cereal such as oatmeal, oat bran, Wheateena, etc. As a result, I've lost a ton of weight, AND my energy level is through the roof! I can run on 4 hours sleep (if needed) and still function, because my body is running on all cylinders. J.Ja

Justin James
Justin James

If it is any consolation, I had the same experience when I quit last year too. I felt like a lot of my quiet thinking time had been stolen. Plus, most of my management smoked, so when I quit, I lost nearly all of my "face-time" with them, and there were a lot of political battles which were being fought over cigarettes and I was cut out of them entirely... which was a problem since fighting those battles was a part of my job. For me, I was a 2 pack a day smoker, every hour on the hour. Add up all of those 5 minute (minimum) breaks, I was smoking nearly an hour a day (I never took lunch breaks though, for most of my career). Add in the break in concentration to walk away from the desk, and I realised later that while the smoke break was a great time to get my eyes off of the monitor, stretch the muscles and so on, it also was hurting my ability to work on long tasks that required focus over a period of time. Overall, I think I work better today without it, not to mention feeling better. J.Ja

rush2112
rush2112

These nasty things run over IT ADMINS and create drive throughs of once single door buildings and leave the health of the IT department ill without access to critical systems because the "IT Intelligence" just dropped to near zero and "IT ACCESS" did drop to zero. Oh and "WHILE YOU ARE HERE" could you look at this for me..

Elmonk
Elmonk

Are we living on the same planet? Surely among top three here in Europe you would find the "nanoparticles from laser printer" plus "electromagnetic radiation" issues - irrespective of any scientific studies pro or against. None of these in your top ten though.

rtillotson
rtillotson

Suzanne Thornberry must've gotten most of her data from American Medical Assn. press releases. Items 2, 3 & 5 in her article are often successfully treated with accupuncture, and medicinal herbs from a professional herbalist. Item 7 can easily be resolved with specific herbal treatments. The "vitamin C, Echinacea and zinc" she mentions in her article are publicized by the media, but professional herbalists recommend and have extensive knowledge of waht does work. IT professionals like myself should also seriously look into alternative medicine. I did 15 years ago and since then have not taken one day off sick or suffered any illnesses.