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Health alert: Never overlook ergonomics

By Bruce Shutan

The enormous pressure to meet a seemingly endless series of deadlines with both speed and accuracy can take its toll on any journalist. It’s an occupational hazard that we’ve all faced.

And at a time when we’re expected to work smarter than ever before, none of us can afford to ignore proper ergonomics — an applied science examining the fit between workers and their environment. To do so, we risk developing crippling or career-ending injuries to our hands, neck and back.

This topic hits close to home for me. In August 1990, I chronicled for the first time the alarming rise in workplace injuries related to carpal tunnel syndrome. Less than three weeks later, I became a statistic. For the next five years, I experienced random pain in my left hand and forearm from a repetitive motion injury that struck during a routine deadline for a monthly trade magazine.

The episode had a profound impact on my ability (or should I say inability) to work. There were times the pins-and-needles and throbbing sensations were so excruciating or annoying that I seriously considered changing careers — that is, until the pain from what was described as a distant cousin of tendonitis mysteriously disappeared. Had my body finally healed itself once I became a true believer in the power of ergonomics? It’s anyone’s guess. All I know is the experience taught me the importance of computer breaks, daily stretches and an ergonomically designed workstation. And if I’m not careful, flare-ups will occur and serve as a reminder to practice what I preach.

There are several helpful rules of thumb we all need to follow for each deadline. One terrific source of information on this topic is “Help! My Computer is Killing Me” by Sheik Imrhan (Taylor Publishing, 1996). By adhering to these recommendations, journalists will greatly reduce or eliminate the possibility of a work-related injury:

Work breaks: This could very well be the simplest yet most difficult practice of all. When we’re researching, reporting or writing, there’s a tendency to push through on an assignment with little or no regard for the need to stretch our legs, flex our wrists, grab a bite to eat or take a bathroom break. It’s hard to interrupt our concentration, especially if we’re in “the zone” of turbo-charged productivity and creativity. But remember at the very least, all one needs is a few short breaks in the action lasting only a few seconds or minutes. We’re not talking about a three-martini lunch, though they’re certainly nice on occasion. Without this basic step, we’re a walking magnet for stress in virtually every body part.

Eye care: Eyestrain is probably the one area that’s, pardon the pun, most overlooked. It’s particularly frustrating for those of us who are older than 40, given how increasingly difficult it becomes to decipher fine print both on paper and computer pixels. The best way around this problem is to occasionally glance away from your PC or laptop and focus on distant objects. There are even special eyeglasses sold for prolonged viewing of computer monitors.

Posture: To keep our bodies well-oiled machines, there are slight adjustments we need to make from head to toe. That means having a properly designed workstation. To avoid neck pain, our computer monitor and keyboard should be anywhere from 20 to 40 degrees below the horizontal line of sight. The monitor also should be about 30 inches from an individual’s eye to screen, depending on height. There’s a good reason people tend to look in a downward direction: neck muscles strain to hold up for any length of time our heads, which weighs eight to 10 pounds.

The hands and arms serve as the engine of our productivity. Hands should be placed on a padded wrist or palm rest to avoid unnecessary strain on the arms, which work best if positioned on a 70- to 90-degree angle. Some proponents of ergonomics have suggested the use of pitched keyboards that resemble an accordion or other designs that represent a departure from conventional set ups. I’ve tested a few of these through the years and found it hard to get used to them, though certainly for some they may prove beneficial.

Stretching: As important as it is to take work breaks, it’s equally critical to stretch key body parts. Think of it this way: journalists need to warm up just like athletes. In our case, that routine should consist of a series of stretches we can do while seated at our desk. Bob and Jean Anderson, co-authors of “Stretching,” have put together a handy illustration of 16 stretches on two sides of an 8-by-10 laminated card. They include routines involving the hands, arms, neck, shoulders and legs. I’ve often breezed through their recommended stretches in five or 10 minutes and have felt much better afterward.

In order to be successful, we need to see the forest for the trees. For all of us, that means honoring the practice of proper ergonomics. Unless we work hard to maintain our bodies through each deadline, we won’t enjoy a lasting career in journalism without pain or fear that one day the writer’s block will become a physical obstacle. So make time to work smarter. It’s a small price to pay for preserving a lifelong investment in your skills, knowledge and place in this noble profession.

Bruce Shutan is an L.A.-based freelance writer who has been covering the American workplace for 21 of his 23 years in journalism. He can be reached at


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