The New Tech Frontier in Ergonomics: Smartphones and Tablets

June 08, 2012 - by: admin 0 COMMENTS

In Wednesday’s post, tech expert David Micah Kaufman gave a brief overview of the history of ergonomics and how ergonomics has taken on a life of its own when it comes to interacting with technology, concentrating on laptop use. Now, he looks at small adjustments to make to avoid repetitive stress injuries (RSIs) when using tablets and smartphones.

Tablets

While much tablet use is substantively personal, there is a growing cadre of professionals that use their laptops as their primary business tool. The heavy use of tablets creates real ergonomic challenges for user and employers. “It’s a new technology that we are quick to embrace, but we don’t actually know what musculoskeletal problems might be attributed to it. Any activity where you hold your head forward in a flexed or bent position for a prolonged period of time is going to cause neck issues,” according to Dr. Jodi Oakman, a senior lecturer at La Trobe University’s Centre for Ergonomics & Human Factors.

A solution to this heavy tablet use is creating a configuration, using an external keyboard and mouse, that makes the set-up look more like a desktop. Oakman advises users to “move more, vary your positions as much as possible and, if you want to use the iPad as a typing device, use a separate keyboard.”

The tablet overuse condition is even developing its own name, “iPad shoulder,” after the ubiquitous Apple version. Researchers at Harvard’s School of Public Health believe tablet users are at risk of shoulder and neck pain as a result of how they use the gadgets. “The problem is getting stuck in these awkward postures for a long period of time,” commented study leader Jack Dennerlein. He recommends tablet users (1) keep moving and changing their postures every few minutes, (2) use cases that let them keep the device propped on a table at about a 60- to 70- degree angle to prevent neck strain, and (3) set the font size larger so that they can read material in the appropriate neutral posture with back and neck in a straight vertical line.

Smartphones

As phones can do more and more, workers are increasingly spending more time working with them. It used to be that the biggest concern from mobile phone overuse was a crick in the neck. Now, smartphone users are spending less time on the “phone” and more time using it as a visual interface. A Wireless Intelligence survey last year found that in one month, using applications accounted for an average of 667 minutes of smartphone usage, messaging took 671 minutes of time, voice calling used up 531 minutes, and users browsed the Web for 422 minutes.

“The posture we assume while texting and e-mailing from mobile devices ― using our thumbs to type, crunched over a tiny keyboard ― is unnatural. That said, it only presents problems when we do it constantly without giving our body enough breaks,” said Kermit Davis, PhD, an associate professor of environmental health at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. “When you combine this behavior with other hand-intensive activities ― such as using a computer mouse or playing video games ― the cumulative effects on the hands and forearms may cause problems.” Davis recommends that users:

  • draft briefer messages;
  • use word recognition tools when possible to reduce keystrokes;
  • take regular mobile phone breaks;
  • keep the wrist relatively straight during any typing activity;
  • avoid twisting their wrists into odd angles; and
  • use alternate fingers.

Of course, these devices are still used as phones. Using a hands-free microphone will help the user avoid the crick in the neck and keep them on the right side of the law in numerous states with hands-free driving laws. Plus, users who like to watch videos on their smartphones should attempt to reduce the angle at which they are watching those little screens.

Bottom Line

Technology is constantly changing and the user interfaces for employees to access this technology are equally in flux. Employers need to be constantly reviewing their ergonomics guidelines and provide relevant advice to their employees.

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 david@biggerpies.com or (415) 272-8115.

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