The New Tech Frontier in Ergonomics: Laptops

June 06, 2012 - by: admin 0 COMMENTS

Technology expert David Micah Kaufman examines how workplace ergonomics issues have evolved with new technologies and gives tips for using a laptop so that the mobile office is as ergonomically sound as the desktop setup in the brick and mortar office.

Ergonomics, literally the “study of work,” has been around for quite some time. The first records of an analysis of how we get things done has been traced to the 5th century when Hippocrates laid out the best way for a physician to lay his tools of the trade during surgery. In the modern era, ergonomics has become much more focused on the health of the worker. The International Ergonomics Association describes current ergonomics as being “concerned with the understanding of interactions among humans and other elements of a system, and the profession that applies theory, principles, data and methods to design in order to optimize human well-being and overall system performance.”

One might assume that technology would actually relieve much of the burden of occupational hazards and dangers. Of course, we know that ergonomics has taken on a life of its own when it comes to interacting with technology. There has been an immense amount of work studying the way that workers sit and work behind computer terminals. Much of the concern of the effort revolves around the need to avoid repetitive stress injuries (RSIs) on the job. Other efforts are made to ensure that workers do not injure their backs and necks.

The state of Washington estimated that those injuries resulted in 40 percent of all workers’ compensation claims in Washington and 60 percent of all expenses ― $12 million from their workers’ compensation fund and 70,000 lost work-days.

While most of the energy has been focused on “computer workstations,” more and more technology users are opting for more mobile computer devices, laptops, tablets, and smartphones instead of their desktop computers. Just as desktops created ergonomic challenges, these new technologies present similar difficult situations for employers when it comes to defending their workers from musculoskeletal work-related ailments.


Largely driven by the Millennials’ overwhelming affinity for them and the need for computing on the go, laptops are surging in popularity. Previously, most ergonomic thinking has been developed around the traditional desktop model. However, laptops and desktops are used very differently. Laptops are used in two separate modes, mobile and stable use.

The stable-use format is much like a traditional desktop ― setting up your laptop on a desk and using it like a desktop. In that case, the physical set-up is important, just like in organizing a desktop. Chair configuration and keyboard/screen height need to be considered. Therefore, a docking station should be used to make the set-up more closely resemble a workstation. That allows the user to attach a regular size, external keyboard (an adjustable keyboard tray or desk), a mouse, and even a full-size monitor.

The mobile user is a more complicated situation as the workplace is literally “on the move.” The user works on a laptop in strange places and awkward positions. CIO magazine writer Bill Snyder describes the struggle of using a laptop for serious work, “Many of us do all or most of our work on a laptop, and that means typing on an awkwardly positioned keyboard that is almost certainly flat and quite possibly not full-sized. Not using one (a real keyboard) is simply asking for trouble in the form of RSI or neck and back pain.”

Unfortunately, that is not always possible. Users need to think about their position when they are using laptops. There are many, many bad positions that people frequently use. When using a laptop, users should be sitting, preferably in a chair that allows for an upright or slightly reclined posture. They should center the laptop in front of them and keep their arms and elbows relaxed and close to their body with elbows bent at 90 degrees. A possible solution for those on the move is using an empty 2-3 inch binder with the wider edge toward their knees to create an angle that will help keep their wrists straight and maximize the height of the screen.

As with any computer user, even laptop users should incorporate mini- breaks every 20 to 30 minutes to break up repetition and change the posture.

On Friday, Kaufman will take a closer look at how we can make small adjustments to make a big ergonomic difference when using tablets and smartphones to  avoid the latest maladies like “iPod shoulder” and that old standard the repetitive stress injury.

David Micah Kaufman is the founder of BIGGER PIES! — a boutique professional services consulting firm in San Francisco — and a regular contributor to HR Insight and HRIT . You can reach him at or (415) 272-8115.

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