Your IT job can compromise your comfort and even lead to injury or chronic physical problems. Deb Shinder offers this rundown of conditions to watch out for, along with some recommended ergonomic workarounds.

It’s relatively easy to find information about how to make the workplace more ergonomic for the typical computer user. But IT pros aren’t typical, and creating an ergonomically friendly environment in the server room is a bit more challenging.

Ergonomics refers to the science of designing a workplace or other environment to minimize discomfort and fatigue and, by so doing, maximize productivity. The most high-profile ergonomics issue is probably that of repetitive stress injuries (RSIs). The most famous (or infamous) variety of RSI is carpal tunnel syndrome, although according to some medical experts, other types of RSI are actually more common in computer users.

However, there is much more to ergonomics than the avoidance of hand and arm pain. In this article, we’ll look at some ways you can incorporate good ergonomic principles into the equipment you use and the way you perform the tasks of an IT pro, and thus avoid the associated health risks.

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

Are ergonomic keyboards necessary for the servers?

Unlike data entry workers, secretarial personnel, and some other users, an IT pro’s job doesn’t usually consist of continuously typing large amounts of text for hours on end. Thus, ergonomic keyboards may not be as essential in the server room as at the desks of those types of users. However, some people are more sensitive than others to arm/wrist/hand (or even neck) injuries from holding your hands in an unnatural position.

If you’re one of those people and/or if you find yourself at the keyboard for long periods without a break, an ergo keyboard can save you a lot of grief. There are many types, ranging from the commonplace slightly contoured models, like the Microsoft Natural Elite, to specialized (and expensive) models that split completely into two or three adjustable parts. See examples at the Adaptive Technology for Information and Computing at MIT Web site.

The good news is that you probably don’t need to buy multiple ergo keyboards for the server room. Multiple servers can share via a KVM switch. For a more modern solution, you can run multiple servers in VMs on one physical machine or use terminal services/remote desktop or other remote control software to access the desktops of multiple servers from your primary workstation.

Sitting pretty: Three cheers for the right chair

“Chained to the chair” is an expression that many technology workers use to describe their work lives, and it may not be much of an exaggeration. Once upon a time, an IT administrator would be up and down all day, running from one server to another, checking out the router, visiting users’ desks to configure their systems, and so on. But thanks to the aforementioned VM and remote control technologies, now you can do it all (or at least a lot of it) from one centralized location. That means you’re likely to be sitting in that chair for long periods of time — and a bad fit can cause big health problems after a while.

Back pain is one of the most commonly reported health problems in adults, and it can be caused or exacerbated by the poor posture and contact stress that result from a chair that doesn’t provide proper support. There is no one-size-fits-all chair, so one of the most important factors in choosing a chair is that it be easily adjustable as to seat height, armrests, forward/backward tilt, and height and depth of the lumbar support. For more information, see “Choosing the Right Ergonomic Office Chair.”

Taking a stand

Even with a good chair, sitting all day isn’t particularly healthy. Many adjustable computer carts can be adjusted so that you can work standing up. A lot of people with back problems find it more comfortable to stand, at least for part of the workday. Some find that a stand-up desk aids in concentration, too — especially during that afternoon lull, when it catches up with you that you stayed up until 3:00 a.m. the night before studying for your certification exam. (That was what you were doing, right?) You have more flexibility and mobility while standing, you can more easily do stretching exercises and move around a bit while working, and many sources say you burn more calories when standing than when sitting.

The ergonomics of sound

Another aspect of workplace comfort that’s often overlooked is sound. Server rooms can be noisy places. If you’re lucky, your office space is shut off from the actual server room, but if you’re not, that constant noise can be stressful. Low-intensity white noise can cause fatigue and distraction, and some studies have shown that exposure can cause chronically elevated epinephrine levels that can be a risk factor for heart disease.

For more information about IT noise and ergonomics of sound, see “The Silent PC.”

Getting around

Injuries often come about when we try to maneuver through overcrowded spaces, especially in an environment like the server room. If you don’t have ample room around the systems to get to the backs and access ports, jacks, cables, power sources, etc., you’ll have to contort your body into uncomfortable and possibly dangerous positions whenever you need to make changes to hardware or wiring. To avoid injuries, make sure that servers are properly mounted in racks that are capable of supporting the weight of all the systems mounted in them.