Ergonomics: Ideas for a more productive workspace

By J. Carlton Collins, CPA

Q. My colleague suggested that I purchase an ergonomic keyboard to combat my shoulder and wrist pain. Would this really make a difference?

A. The unique shape of an ergonomic keyboard (compared to a straight keyboard) places your arms in a more natural position, allowing you to type more comfortably. This type of keyboard can work well for those who know how to type, but it appears to make less difference for people who type with just two fingers. Be aware that it takes most people at least a few days to get used to typing on an ergonomic keyboard; however, once the transition is made, most users I've talked to report improvement in their health related to their hands, wrists, arms, and shoulders. Primarily, users of ergonomic keyboards report that the device helps them achieve greater productivity with less arm and wrist fatigue. A picture of my ergonomically shaped keyboard is below.

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Upgrading to an ergonomic keyboard may be more important for people who use a laptop. That's because laptop keyboards are smaller than desktop keyboards and, thus, require users to hold their shoulders and arms at more unnatural positions. The importance of ergonomics does not end with the keyboard; the user's complete workspace should also be ergonomically designed to promote good health and improved productivity. You may want to consider the ideas in the following ergonomics checklist, which I developed based on years of sitting at other people's desks while installing accounting software:

1. Monitor height. The height of your monitor(s) should be even with your eyes. This encourages good posture, which takes the strain off your neck muscles and ensures that the weight of your head is properly supported atop your spinal column.

2. Monitor size. For most people, eyesight deteriorates as you age, and a good way to compensate for that decline is to upgrade to a larger monitor or monitors. For the past eight or nine years, I've used two side-by-side 40-inch monitors (which took some getting used to). I find that these large dual monitors make me more productive because I can see the screens clearly and can easily work with four or more visible windows simultaneously. My setup may be a bit excessive; I recommend you use two 32-inch monitors.

3. Monitor type. The best type of monitor today is an LED with a nonglossy, anti-glare screen, which is easier on the eyes. You should work in a well-lit room, so your eyes aren't dilated. Also, make sure the brightness of your monitors is not so bright that it causes eye fatigue.

4. Keyboard height. Position your keyboard at the proper height so that your arms are parallel to the ground. In many cases, a keyboard tray will help you achieve this positioning. Your arms should not rest on the sharp edge of a desk because this positioning can interfere with proper blood flow to the hands.

5. Comfortable chair. Your chair should have wheels so you can easily position yourself to work comfortably. Ideally, the chair should have no arms or have retractable arms that do not inhibit your natural arm positioning.

6. Lighting. The work environment should be well-lit, preferably with sunlight, fluorescent light, and incandescent light sources to maximize readability and to minimize eyestrain.

7. Beneficial devices. Consider purchasing ergonomic devices such as an ergonomically shaped mouse, keyboard tray, monitor riser, padded mouse pad with wrist rest, keyboard wrist pad, padded floor mat (for users who stand), anti-glare screen, back support belt, wrist support brace, and additional lighting.   

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About the author

J. Carlton Collins, CPA, (carlton@asaresearch.com) is a technology consultant, a conference presenter, and a JofA contributing editor.

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