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.

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