Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Importance of Using the Right Tool, Part 2

Using the right tool. This is the essence of "ergonomics" - if you're using a tool that's awkward or makes you move your body in ways it wasn't designed to, then over time, you'll endure painful injuries - many caused by something as subtle as using the wrong keyboard! If you've ever experienced the dull, persistent ache in your shoulders, wrists, back or forearms, you know the first signs of Repetitive Strain Injuries.

The goal of any product designed with ergonomic comfort in mind is to fit the user.
The reason there are so many keyboards is because there are so many different sizes of people! Think about the people you work with. Some are taller, some are shorter. Some have broad shoulders, some are narrower. Each body type demands a slightly different style. For example, a broad-shouldered person will almost certainly need a split keyboard, where an individual with more narrow shoulders might be able to do fine on a standard straight keyboard.

You may also have seen some other keyboards that look nothing like the standard keyboard that came with your desktop. Highly customizable keyboards like this one or this one seem like something you'd see in a science fiction movie - but there's a good reason for their design: they allow the tool to be configured to fit you, rather than the other way around.

Within the broad category of split keyboards, there are three main subcategories. The first two are pretty common: "fixed-angle split keyboards" which are angled, but cannot be adjusted, and "adjustable-angle split keyboards," which offer more customization options. There is also a third type of split keyboard, in which the two sides of the alpha-numeric keyboard are completely split. Each has its own benefits and drawbacks, which we'll cover.

Wrists BentFixed-angle split keyboards, such as the classic Northgate keyboard, have been in use for decades. They address the problem of ulnar deviation, or the lateral bending of the wrists (see image), but don't typically address the problem of wrist extension (when your wrists bend vertically, creating an angle between your forearm and hand and putting pressure on your carpal tunnel. The main drawback is that if you're a "hunt and peck" user, this type of keyboard will have a bit of a learning curve, as well.

To address both ulnar deviation and wrist extension, adjustable angle keyboards were designed (such as the Goldtouch keyboard, which can be adjusted both laterally and vertically). As with the angled keyboards, there is evidence that this design does reduce discomfort, and according to Cornell University, split angle keyboards can improve your computer performance by up to 80%.

Finally, the completely split keyboard. These offer the most neutral position for typing available, positioning the user's hands in a "handshake" position and avoiding all the most common causes of keyboard-related injuries. However, they involve a fairly steep learning curve, and your productivity will suffer until you learn to type in the modified format. If you are a "hunt and peck" typer, this board will likely be unusable for you. To find out more about this type of keyboard, click here.

You spend half your waking hours at work, and our goal is to help you get the most out of them. They shouldn't involve pain or discomfort, which keep you from achieving your goals and lowers your quality of life. Remember that a good, high-quality keyboard can easily pay for itself in added productivity gains, but
only if it's the right design for you. If it's not, you can spend a lot of money on a board that has a lot of neat features, but that ultimately helps you accomplish no more (and sometimes less!) than your existing keyboard does.

Monday, July 30, 2007

The Importance of Using the Right Tool, Part 1

"Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe."
-- attributed to Abraham Lincoln

Using the right tool can have a huge impact on your health and productivity. The right tool can allow you to accomplish far more using less effort. Abe Lincoln would have learned that lesson well, clearing farmland. Imagine how much less effort it would have taken to cut down a tree with a sharp axe!

While you probably don't spend your days cutting down trees, using the right tool is just as important. The wrong office setup can result in a whole host of Repetitive Stress Injuries (RSI), and sore shoulders, forearms or wrists are just the beginning.

Avoiding Repetitive Stress Injuries

"Ergonomics" comes from two Greek words: "ergo," meaning "work," and "nomos," meaning "law" or "rule." This makes sense: your body was designed to move and work in a certain way - and when you violate those laws, there are physical consequences. For information workers who spend their days at a computer, such injuries are frequently barely detectable in their early stages: tingling fingers, sore backs or shoulders - things easy to overlook or "just deal with" until the cumulative effects of these tiny injuries get so bad they actually prevent you from working. Because the field of ergonomics seeks to avoid or limit these Repetitive Strain Injuries, "ergonomics" is frequently defined as "fitting the task to the worker."

One way to significantly reduce your chances of an RSI is to using the right keyboard for your body type. The problem is, of course, that there are so many different keyboards available! Most are pretty standard and look like this one, while others - in order to better match the work to the worker - have some pretty odd shapes. In our June email, we'll help you learn the difference between the various keyboard types, and why they are designed the way they are.

Right now, though, we'd like debunk a common myth. Typically, split keyboards (keyboards which have the alphanumeric keys split into two halves, with each side slightly angled) are labeled "ergonomic" and declared superior to the more traditional straight keyboards. If your wrists hurt or your fingers tingle, the solution is to buy an "ergonomic" (meaning "split") keyboard. But is it that simple?

Straight or Split Keyboard: Which is Best for You?

The simple answer is, of course, "no, it's not that simple." Split keyboards aren't always better - or even more ergonomic - than straight keyboards. To determine which style of keyboard is best suited to you, perform this simple test: with your arms resting at your sides, extend your

Wrists Straight

hands, and place them on the home row of a straight keyboard. Are your wrists relatively straight, or are they angled?

The goal is to keep your wrists straight; working with them bent significantly increases your risk of developing Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and other RSI's. With this in mind, straight keyboards usually work best for users who are somewhat narrow through the shoulders. For those with this body type, typing on the angled keys of a split keyboard causes them to hold their elbows out away from their sides in order to keep their wrists straight. Such a posture significantly increases the strain on their neck and shoulder muscles, leading to soreness and can cause a number of other problems, if continued over time.Wrists Bent

If you're looking to upgrade your keyboard to better fit your body type, take a look at a few of the boards below. Remember, there is no "one-size-fits-all" solution - the "best keyboard" is the one that's the best for you.

Straight Keyboards

Mini Keyboard with ALPS Key Switches - A study conducted at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory found that users of keyboards with "springier" keys (Tactile Switches) were less likely to suffer symptoms of repetitive strain injury. This straight keyboard packages high-end key-switches in a space-saving package.

Avant Prime and Avant Stellar Keyboards- If you long for the days when keyboards weren't an afterthought, you will welcome the quality touch and feel of the Avant line of keyboards. These fully-reprogrammable and remappable keyboards were built to last, with ALPS tactile key switches. The Avant Stellar adds 12 programmable keys to automate tasks such as cut-and-paste, making it perfect for graphic designers, editors or others whose daily jobs require commands using multiple key combinations.

Split Keyboards:

The Northgate Ergonomic Evolution Keyboard - utilizing ALPS key switches and a split configuration, plus an integrated touchpad, this keyboard combines many of the ergonomic "best practices" in a single, built-to-last package.

GoldTouch Variable Split Keyboard - this "variable split" keyboard allows you to truly make your keyboard fit your body type. If you know you need a split keyboard, this is one of the most customizable boards available.

Maxim Adjustable Split Keyboard - like the GoldTouch, the Maxim allows for vertical adjustment as well as horizontal, offering a new level of comfort for information workers.

5 Tips for Staying Warm When Your Office Isn't

Typing with cold fingers is no fun. You probably know the drill: whoever has the keys to the tightly-locked thermostat controls grew up somewhere north of the Arctic Circle, and has little sympathy for people like you, shivering away at your computer. You get your morning coffee because it keeps your hands warm and less for the taste. You know there are fingers on your hands because you can see them (now, if you could only feel them!).

Too melodramatic? Maybe - but cold employees can cost employers up to 10% more per hour per employee. Whether you spend your days freezing at a desk or working in an un-insulated (and barely heated) warehouse, you know how much trying to type with numb fingers can cut into your productivity. How many times have you had to go back and correct an error or retype a sentence because your fingers just wouldn't work as fast as your mind? According to a study by Cornell University, workers with cold fingers and toes worked more slowly and made more than twice as many keyboarding errors.

Unfortunately, cold fingers and toes are just a part of the normal office experience for many people. Before you consider bringing a pair of gloves to work, try the following tips.

5 Tips for Staying Warm When Your Office Isn't

When you sit for long periods of time, your circulation slows down. The first place this shows up, of course, is the furthest place from your heart: your fingers and toes. The trick to staying warm at work

Following a few simple tips throughout the day should help you stay productive (and warm!) at work:

1) Make fists and wiggle your toes. Even this small movement will help the blood flow to your fingers and toes.

2) Take short, frequent walks. This is a good habit to get into even if you're not cold. By getting away from your computer screen and walking around, you significantly reduce your chances of developing a variety of work-induced problems ranging from eyestrain headaches to carpal tunnel syndrome, plus the added boost to your heart rate will keep you alert. . . and warm! You can even download a free timer here.

3) Don't wear tight shoes. Ladies are especially vulnerable to this one. Even if they're "super cute," leave those tight shoes at home, or at least take them off while you're at your desk. Tight shoes keep the blood from flowing to your toes.

4) Limit your caffeine intake. Caffeine constricts blood vessels, which only makes your fingers and toes get cold faster.

5) Can't spend your days wandering around the parking lot? Try a heated keyboard, mat or footrest (you'll need to take off those tight shoes), or a radiant panel! These are far better alternatives to space heaters. Space heaters are frequently banned from offices, because they are blatant fire hazards and huge energy wasters. On the other hand, a heated keyboard, footrest or radiant panel uses a tiny fraction of the electricity, and are about as likely to start a fire as your mouse! They also work great for use in non-insulated work areas, such as warehouses.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Beware of... Mouse?

When someone mentions "safe mousing," it's almost amusing. "How in the world can someone injure himself using a mouse?!"

Believe it or not, the thousands of clicks you perform in a normal day can cause significant damage to your arm, wrist and shoulder. Repetitive Strain Injuries (RSI) such as Carpal Tunnel Syndrome are a very real threat to most information workers. As part of our ongoing effort to help you achieve maximum effectiveness at work, here are 10 tips to avoid the stiffness and soreness that foreshadow an RSI.

10 Tips for Safer Mousing

1. Mouse Grip - don't squeeze or grip the mouse between your thumb & pinky. Your hand should be relaxed, not tensed when using the mouse.

2. Mouse Size - hands come in different sizes just like feet. Choosing a mouse that fits your hand will help you work with an open, relaxed hand posture.

3. Mouse with the Arm - don't twist your wrist side-to-side while mousing. Move the mouse with the whole arm, using the elbow as a pivot point and keeping your wrist in a straight, neutral position.

4. Mouse Position -

  • Awkward Positions: Body postures determine which joints and muscles are used in an activity, as well as the amount of force exerted. Poor postures place unusual or excessive forces on components of the body. The number one problem with pointing devices has always been location. In the best of circumstances, pointing devices are placed just to the right of the keyboard, and at worst, they are placed on a side surface or on the surface in front of the user because there isn't room on the keyboard tray.
  • Effect of Mouse Position on Shoulder Muscle Activity:
    The location of the pointing device during use, (in relation to the body's midline) affects EMG muscle activity for the anterior and middle deltoid muscles. (Cook and Kothiyal, 1998). EMG activity increases as the mousing area is moved farther from the body's midline, as shown by the research performed by Alan Hedge and Greg Shaw at Cornell University. They measured EMG activity in relation to the shoulder abduction angle required by the placement of the pointing device. Note how much muscle activity is present at 50 degrees shoulder abduction. This mousing position, (just to the right of the keyboard) would be considered a best case scenario for most users.
  • Effect of Differing Shoulder Widths:
    Computer users come in all sizes. A man that is 6 foot 5 inches tall, with a large bone structure could measure 28" through the shoulders, while a 5 foot tall, petite woman might be only 15" through the shoulders. In the Cornell research, when the mouse was positioned just to the right of the keyboard, the test subject's shoulder abduction was at 50 degrees. The 6" 5" man with a 28" shoulder width might have only been at 40 degrees abduction for the same position. The strain on his shoulder is reduced because of his size. On the other hand, the 5" petite woman with a 15" shoulder width might have a 60 degree abduction with the same mouse position. Her size will cause her to be at even greater risk of injury.

5. Avoid Restricting Circulation - there are exposed blood vessels near the skin at the wrist, where the pulse is taken. You don't want any pressure to this region, as it will reduce circulation into the hand, increasing the risk of injury.

6. Don't use a Wrist Rest - research has shown that using a wrist rest doubles the pressure inside the carpal tunnel, and it acts as a partial tourniquet reducing critical circulation. Also, you can't "Mouse with the Arm" and use a wrist rest at the same time.

7. Mouse Settings - adjust the speed and acceleration for your mouse. By making this adjustment, you will be able to reduce the amount of arm/hand movement needed to get from one side to the monitor screen to the other. To adjust these settings, do the following:

  • Open the Control Panel.
  • Double Click on the "Mouse" icon.
  • Click on the "Motion" tab.
  • In the box that says "Speed," change the speed from the default 25%, to 75%.
  • In the box that says "Acceleration" change from "None" to "Low" or "Medium"
  • Click "Apply" to test out the new settings. Adjust them more if necessary. Click "OK".

8. Mousing Height - adjust the height of the mouse so your wrist is straight while mousing. The top of your hand should not be bent back toward your body while mousing.

9. Mouse Designs - consider using a mouse that is designed to support the weight of the arm and hand while mousing. This reduces the strain to the neck and shoulders, and is actually essential if you don't have
Proper Forearm Supports to use.
o The
Quill Mouse (Offered in right and left-handed models) Best pointing device we've seen to date.
o The
Contour Mouse (4 right-hand sizes, 3 left-hand sizes)
o The
Renaissance Mouse (2 right-hand sizes)
o The
Whale Mouse (adjustable size, non-handed)
o The
Easy Cat GlidePoint Mouse (non-handed)

10. Load Sharing - consider alternating between the left and right hand to reduce the workload and strain on the one hand. This can be done using a non-handed mouse like the
Whale Mouse, or the Roller Mouse, or by using a Dual Mouse Adapter and a Left-handed mouse. Another option for mousing with both hands is to use a keyboard with a centralized pointing device like:
o The
Northgate Evolution Keyboard with Glidepoint Mouse.
o The
Pro Curve Keyboard with Glidepoint Mouse.