Exigent ergonomics: Another way for the help desk to help out

Help desk pros are responsible for making sure that computer hardware and software stays in good working order. Who's responsible for making sure that computer users staying healthy while computing? Should that fall to the support staff as well?

Last week, my organization hosted a presentation from our university's Safety Office concerning ergonomics and safe computer use. The field of ergonomics can be defined, literally, as the study of work. As it relates to the modern digital office, ergonomic principles can be applied to make sure that employees aren't putting themselves at risk for musculoskeletal disorders through improper computer use.

Like most computer support pros, I'd encountered the principles of ergonomics before. I knew that proper task seating and workstation configuration can be important in making sure users stay comfortable while working. I've even helped users shop for keyboard trays and foot rests to make sure that their spaces fit them well. When our office manager decided to schedule the visit from the Safety Office though, I realized that I haven't been very proactive about suggesting ergonomic solutions for my colleagues. She asked Safety to come in because several people had mentioned to her that they had been having back and shoulder pain. The issue came up with her because they wanted to order ergonomics products from our office supply catalog; keyboard trays, chairs, and the like. Simply because I don't usually handle the purchasing of the office supplies, I never knew that several people were experiencing pain while working at their computers. This caused me to examine how I have been handling user relations and ergonomics in my office.

I've always tried to be mindful of safe computing principles when adding new workstations to our network. We purchase accessory packs with all of our notebook computers that provide the user with a full-size keyboard, mouse, and display for more comfortable use when they're in the office. Whenever I set up a new machine, I set up the keyboard and the display so they're centered on the desk and the occupant won't have to twist their spine to use the computer. And if a user comes to me with a question about computing comfort, I'm always willing to assist. I make sure to let them know that the best way to handle musculoskeletal disorders is by addressing them before they become serious.

I don't, however, go around enforcing things like I'm an officer on the Ergonomics Police Force. I've always felt that ergonomics is kind of a fuzzy thing. The same principle that drives the ergonomics movement -- that the work space should fit the worker, instead of the reverse -- means that not everybody will want or need a keyboard tray. I hate them, because I'm tall enough that they usually crowd my knees. So, if someone comes to ask me for ergonomic advice, I'm happy to provide. But it hasn't been my habit to confront every user who's moved their computer and keyboard off-center on their desks. I figured that if that's what worked better for them, then that was fine by me. It didn't occur to me that my colleagues might arrange their desks against their own interests. Maybe someone decides that they want to have space for a desk blotter in front of them, and so she moves her computer off to the side, never considering whether the twisting she has to do to work on her PC might be harmful to her back. My libertarian attitude may have been letting some of my colleagues hurt themselves.

Going forward, I've decided that in our office, ergonomics is something that the help desk is responsible for, and we'll be handling it in a proactive way. We'll be integrating a workspace analysis into all of our computer training for new staff members, and we'll be having the Safety Office come back on an annual basis to remind us all of the principles of healthy computer use. I'll also be paying more attention to my users' workspaces, and making sure to discuss the situation with them when I notice that they might be making unhealthy choices. When it comes to ergonomics and safe computing, knowledge truly is power. No one has to take every piece of advice from workplace safety experts; we're all different. I'm going to make sure though that in the future, when my colleagues set up their task stations, they're fully aware of ergonomics and know how to recognize the onset of musculoskeletal disorders.

Sure, it's my job to make sure that the computers in the office are working right. But I don't want anyone hurting themselves while using those computers, either. If I can help my colleagues head off health problems, I will.

For more information on ergonomics, and recommendations from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, visit them on the Web at http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/etools/computerworkstations/.