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What are Computer Ergonomics?

By Alan Rankin
Updated May 16, 2024
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Computer ergonomics encompasses the sciences involved with safe and efficient use of computer equipment. In the 21st century, many jobs involve long periods of work with computer monitors, keyboards, and other input devices. Poor use of these devices over extended periods can result in repetitive stress injuries (RSI) and other health problems for workers, as well as reduced efficiency for employers. Computer ergonomics seeks to remedy these problems by engineering computer equipment to meet the user’s needs rather than forcing the user to conform to the computer’s design.

Ergonomic design has been the subject of study for centuries, but the term ergonomics itself was coined in the 1940s. The Industrial Revolution of the 1800s and the introduction of the assembly line in the early 1900s contributed to a new kind of work environment. Workers could mass-produce vast numbers of items quickly, but it was soon discovered that poor workplace design contributed to inefficiency and worker health problems. Ergonomics, although not always known by that name, meant workers could produce items faster and better, and improved worker health reduced the need to replace and train employees.

In the late 20th century, a similar revolution in technology created millions of computer-related jobs around the world. As computers became efficient and affordable, these systems were brought into offices to replace older technology such as typewriters. Often, the computers were placed in old works paces that otherwise remained unchanged. Soon, workers complained of health problems such as eyestrain and back or neck problems. Carpal tunnel syndrome, a nerve disorder affecting the wrist and hand, became widespread due to the constant use of keyboards and computer mice.

The field of computer ergonomics attempts to combat these problems with scientific studies to improve equipment and workplaces. Experts in computer ergonomics recommend, for example, that a computer screen should be at the worker’s eye level, positioned at roughly arm’s length for comfortable reading and angled back to reduce glare from light sources. The keyboard should be centered in front of the user and positioned at or below elbow level. The mouse should be in a similar position, and the user’s hand should rest there only when the mouse is in use. In fact, frequent short breaks from the mouse and keyboard can reduce the chance of RSI, especially when combined with regular stretching exercises.

Some computer equipment has been designed with computer ergonomics in mind. The ergonomic keyboard has an angled surface next to a cushioned pad, giving the user’s wrists a more natural, relaxed angle to reduce the chance of carpal tunnel syndrome. An ergonomic mouse is likewise built to allow a more natural position for the wrist and hand; one design is shaped like a pen, removing the need to place the wrist flat against the desk. These external devices can be added to a laptop computer for those who use this form of hardware as their primary device. Ergonomic chairs, desks, and monitor stands provide back support and do not require the neck to be in cramped or extended positions for long periods.

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