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Thanks to the explosive growth in personal computing, more people than ever before are working from the comfort of home. Unfortunately, though, many home-based workers are unaware of the potential health risks associated with spending countless hours in front of a PC on a regular basis. Recent studies, however, indicate that those in computer-dependant occupations are much more likely than their counterparts in the traditional labor pool to develop repetitive stress injuries and other ergonomic disorders

Such agonizing afflictions can be caused by any number factors, including, among other things, improper use of equipment, exposure to repetitive motion, awkward posture, and stress-related tension at both work and home.
If ignored or overlooked, ergonomic disorders can pose a wide variety of long- and short-term health problems, ranging from general fatigue to severe wrist pain. For the most part, though, such pain and suffering is easily avoided. The key is to pay attention to trouble when it starts.

Some of the most common symptoms associated with ergonomic disorders include tingling, numbness, aching, stiffness and burning in the fingers, wrists and hands. If you happen to develop any of these symptoms, it’s best to seek medical attention right away.

Meanwhile, in an effort to provide home-based workers with a safe and healthy working environment, a growing number of manufacturers have developed a throng of “ergonomically” designed office furniture and computer accessories—ranging from chairs contoured to provide good back support to fingerless gloves with built-in wrist support.

Aside from using such specialized furnishings and state-of-the-art gizmos, ergonomic specialists recommend the following tips to help reduce the risk of injury.

Optimize your workspace

Place your monitor and keyboard directly in front of you. Set your mouse next to your keyboard. Position the top of your monitor screen to sit at, or slightly below, eye level. Be sure to place your most frequently used work materials and equipment, such as a telephone or fax machine, within your “immediate reach zone.” It’s also a good idea to place such items on a stable work surface, approximately 28 to 30 inches above the floor.

Minimize eyestrain

To prevent tired eyes—a common factor associated with persistent headaches—try to keep the amount of light even in your work area. Make sure both indoor and outdoor light sources are not brighter than your screen. This tends to cause direct glare, making text and images difficult to view. If necessary, adjust the contrast and brightness on your monitor to a comfortable level. If you place your monitor near a window, try using curtains or shades to dampen outside light. Also, be sure to look away from the screen and focus on a distant object periodically.

Take a break!

Take a 30-second break every 10 minutes or so. During each break, stand up and move around. Do something else for awhile to give your muscles and joints a chance to relax.

Vary tasks

To make your day more interesting, alternate computer-related work with other tasks—filing, copying, returning phone calls, etc.

Maintain good posture

Be sure to sit in a relaxed position, keeping your forearms parallel to the floor while relaxing your shoulders and upper arms. Let the back of your chair—not your spine—support your body weight. Adjust your chair so your feet rest flat on the floor. Try to keep your head and neck as straight as possible, resting your arms at your sides with your forearms held at a 90-degree angle. Relax your upper arms and keep your elbows as close to your body as possible. It’s also important to avoid awkward posture. For example, don’t crook the phone between your ear and neck. If necessary, invest in a headset for long phone conversations.

Maintain a safe and productive working environment

Minimize “background noise” created by others by moving your workspace to a quiet corner of your home. Set up a system that keeps your work and family lives separate. Establish workspace rules and enforce them rigorously. Install a separate phone line solely for business purposes. Make sure your workspace has adequate heat and proper air circulation.

Relax

When you type, use as light a keystroke as possible to prevent unnecessary strain on your hands and wrists. Don’t rest your hands or elbows on anything sharp. Doing so can lead to permanent nerve damage.

Organize

Develop a coherent filing system. Use color-coded floppy disks and file folders to help yourself locate information quickly. This also will help reduce strain on your body and mind.

Spruce up

To avoid allergic reactions induced by dust and other airborne particles, clean your computer screen and other work items on a regular basis.

For more detailed information and tips on healthy computing, an endless number of ergonomic-related sites are available on the World Wide Web.