Saturday, January 29, 2011

THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS AN ERGONOMIC WORKSTATION. (Part 1 of a new series on Things That Ergonomists Get Wrong)

Humans evolved while walking. Or, if you prefer, we walked while evolving. The curvature of our spine is unique among the animals. A lot of anthropologists, including me, think that the curve shows that we forced ourselves upright to adapt to walking around in high grass instead of hanging around in trees.

Animals evolve according to their environments. Their behaviour and their bodies work together and against each other to respond to their environments in different ways, and some of those are "better" or more successful than others. That success dictates who gets to reproduce and who doesn't. Over time this continuing action changes both the form and the behaviour of the species - that's what evolution is.

Environments in which we evolved are "natural" to us. If you put a fish in the open air and sunlight of the desert, it will die. That's because a fish has evolved in a way that requires at least partial immersion in clean, oxygen-rich water. On the other hand, even the richest, oxygen-filled water will not suit a human because our lungs are closed at one end and are built to separate oxygen from captured gas, not from passing liquid.

Thanks to Jacques Cousteau and Emile Gagnan, we can use a machine to survive underwater, in one sense. S.C.U.B.A. has made it possible for three generations of humans to spend time underwater. Unfortunately, ignorance of the other environmental factors of life underwater has killed and continues to kill hundreds of people every year. We have the tool, but we have not evolved with it enough to use it safely. Some of us have learned to adapt to it, and some of them have adapted safely, but adaptation is not evolution. Adaptation means that we are working against our nature, not in flow with it.

We can thrive in these environments that compliment our evolution, and we can thrive in environments where we have learned to adapt through behavioural or technological means. In the second case, though, a conscious and deliberate change in behaviour must be maintained.

A S.C.U.B.A. diver who doesn't carefully plan out the time and depths of her dive may die or be seriously injured. The same is true of a diver who loses track of her depth, or her mix, or her breathing rate, or her rate of ascent or many other aspects of her environment which she never has to consider in her natural environment. Her great-grandparents never had to consider these things, nor did any of their ancestors before them, In that way it is against our nature to worry about these things, so the diver has to make a conscious effort to consider them - and to maintain that consideration during her entire time under water. She even has to be careful of what she does for a day or so before and after a dive.

A diver might want to spend her entire day following a coral reef full of tiny, skittering shrimp and grinning eels, while warm water surrounds her in comfort that feels better and, somehow, safer than open air. But the diver must be aware that this not her natural environment and that her tools are not yet good enough to allow her the full freedom of using them without thinking.

Does that make sense? I hope so, because here's the leap:

A computer workstation is also an environment that is unnatural to humans. The tools exist to allow us to interact with the computer, but there has not yet been any interconnected evolution between the machine and the user. Oh, we have adapted the typewriter as a data entry tool, and the television as a data output tool, we've even adapted the office worker's workspace as a computer user's workspace, but none of it has evolved naturally, so we should take none of it for granted.

Contrary to what nearly every ergonomist will tell you, there is no such thing as an ergonomic chair, or desk, or monitor or headset or mouse. That's because most ergonomists don't consider the issue deeply enough. They are like doctors who only diagnose towards expected and anticipated treatments. They have been taught what to measure and which standards to ensure and, while some of them are very, very good at that, they will always find a way to recommend one of the predetermined solutions that they have been taught to deliver. Usually that's a commercial product.

What is much more rare is an ergonomist who understands the underlying physiology, or the psychology or the engineering behind how humans really work, and who see it all in the context of evolutionary change, adaptation and environmental health. They look at desks and mouses and chairs and they know that these are tools that we are still learning to adapt to better suit each other and to better suit the user.

As an ergonomist, and as a human factors specialist, and as a techie, I've been shown dozens of these tools. Usually, someone is nodding towards a pile of them, pushed into a corner of the home office or into a desk drawer - a heaping testimony to the practice of throwing money at a problem.

Usually, by the time someone finds me, they've been through a few standard ergonomists, and they've tried several different commercially-driven solutions. They've tried the alternative mouses and trackballs and all of the other nonsense out there and they still ache in their shoulder, or they can't fully unclench their fingers, or their specialist is telling them that they should really wear a brace or have surgery. I've worked with people who can hardly use their hands because of the repetitive strain of mousing. People whose arms or fingers are numb, or whose palms, wrists, elbows or backs ache; people who are losing their ability to work without pain.

The truth is that none of that pain is necessary. All injuries heal more quickly if you catch them earlier. If you are injured now, it will take time for you to heal. The first step towards that healing, and this is the tricky part, the first step has to be to stop injuring yourself.

Remember how I said the first step is tricky? That's because the first step isn't to stop using a particular mouse or chair or desk or keyboard. The way to stop injuring yourself also isn't to stop using a computer. Computers are vastly adaptable. The way to stop injuring yourself is to stop trying to adapt your aching body to an environment that is unnatural. Don't try to sit at a desk for eight hours a day. Don't try to sit in some ludicrous, predetermined, one-size-fits-all posture. Remember that we are the first generation of humans to spend more time sitting than standing, and well... stop it.

Walk around. Shift your weight from one leg to the other. When you're sitting you can do the same thing. Use different postures, work at different angles and at different heights. Move as much as you can, and as differently as you can.

Here are two pieces of advice that never fail to relieve pain.

Set a stack of hardcover books next to your chair, just a little forward from straight under your shoulder. Pile them high enough so that your hand rests on it when your arm is nearly straight, and mouse down there for a while.

Is your shoulder and neck pain lessened?

Put your keyboard on your lap and let it tip away from you, rather than towards you, before you start typing. Do you feel some relief in your wrists?

Remember, before the age of assembly lines and standard schooling, the only humans who spent all day sitting in the same posture, doing the same repetitive motions were galley slaves.

Stand up and shake off the tools that bind you. You have nothing to lose but your pain.

There are hundreds of other simple solutions out there waiting for you to discover them. There are also expert ergonomists who can teach you. Just be mindful of any ergonomist who seems intent on selling you a shiny, new set of really cool, ergonomic shackles.


This is how I'm feeling right now and I won't make any claims that this opinion is going to stand the test of time. Why, maybe someday I'll learn a great secret and all of my prior reasoning will crumble before the light of corporate, profit-driven health care. Anyway, please drop me a line and let me know what you think. I could be wrong about the whole idea - it wouldn't be the first time today.

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