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13 Apr 2012

Keep taking the tablets

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With new technology comes new working postures, many of them less than favourable. Add to that a certain loosening of health and safety policy when it comes to remote working, and ergonomics just got a whole lot more complicated...

The big problem with the way people talk about the term “ergonomic” is that they use it to describe the design of objects when really it’s about a relationship; that between a person and the things around them. It’s an abstract idea, so it’s dependent on a number of variables. And when those variables change, what we understand to be good ergonomics changes too.

“The principle of ergonomics as we now understand it first came to prominence in the wake of the growth in computer use,” says Lee Jones of ergonomic workplace advisers Wellworking. “That has left us encumbered with a fixed idea of what constitutes an ideal workstation and ideal posture based on an idea of desk-bound employees with a computer, whereas the pace of change in technology and working practices means that the relationship between people and place is changing all the time.

“Give people a laptop and a mobile phone and the way they work changes. Encourage them to use breakout space and it changes. Tell them it’s OK to work from wherever and it changes. Give them an iPad and it all changes again. The only consistent thing is the human at the centre of it all, and that should be the focus.”

Modern life relentlessly offers us new ways of harming ourselves. One of the most recently identified was named by researchers at the University of Basel as Laptop Thigh, caused by prolonged exposure of the skin to moderate heat. But as well as lightly toasted thighs, laptop users are also likely to be storing up less visible but more damaging conditions related to poor ergonomics. A survey from BT found that while 83% of businesses provide staff with mobile and wireless gadgets such as laptops and tablets to promote flexible working, only 62% back this up with formal “working from home” policies.

“The health and safety issues involved are complex,” says Jones, “but all rely on the principle that workers have the same rights and needs wherever they are. Many of these obligations are laid out in the Health and Safety at Work Act and include the need to supply appropriate equipment, carry out risk assessments, training and generally provide a safe working environment. Related legislation such as Display Screen Equipment Regulations is equally applicable. However, we have an obligation to recognise that it is clearly not acceptable to work with a laptop or iPad on our knees for hours at a time. We wouldn’t do it in the office, so we shouldn’t do it at home.”

Even now, the problem of Laptop Thigh is generating fewer headlines than the comparatively new ailment of iPad Neck. Tablets present their own unique ergonomic challenges because users typically hold them low down, encouraging inherently poor posture. The problem was given its moniker by a research team at the Harvard School of Public Health.

The results showed that tablet computers that were held in the lap caused greater bending of the head and neck leading to neck and shoulder pains. The author of the study, Dr Jack Dennerlein, said that “compared to typical desktop computing scenarios, the use of tablet computers is associated with high head and neck flexion postures, and there may be more of a concern for the development of neck and shoulder discomfort.

“Only when the tablets were used in the table-movie configuration, where the devices were set at their steepest case angle setting and at the greatest horizontal and vertical position, did posture approach neutral. This suggests that tablet users should place the tablet higher, on a table rather than a lap, to avoid low gaze angles, and use a case that provides steeper viewing angles.”

We are likely to see a greater incidence of related issues as more and more of us work on tablet computers. Market research firm IDC claims that worldwide tablet sales are expected to jump from 16.1m in 2010 to 147.2m by 2015. It also believes that roughly 45m of these tablets will be purchased by companies for their employees.

“This will require a new approach to ergonomics,” says Jones. It will be based on providing people with the right equipment but also addressing the management issues that make the difference. In many ways, schools provide a perfect model of contemporary ergonomics. This is not based solely on an ‘ergonomic’ product but on an appreciation of the relationship between people, the way they work, the place they do it in and the stuff they surround themselves with. The kids are way ahead of us.”

Specific ergonomic solutions for tablet users have been appearing for some time. Some of these, such as the IDEO-designed Node, for Steelcase, are aimed at classrooms but might equally apply to workplaces. For desktop workers, many accessories follow a well-trodden path by using stands to create a workstation that mimics the postures associated with PC use. These include products such as Flo by Colebrook Bosson Saunders and the i360 stand by Intelligent Touch. Because the tablet is a much lighter item than a laptop, they also include much simpler products such as the Padfoot from Michiel Cornelissen.

Some products lend themselves to tablet users in social spaces. These include Claesson Koivisto Rune’s new Isola chair for Tacchini (onoffice 62), with its inbuilt worksurface, as well as established products such as Coffice from Bene which has power and data services built into the arm and Celeste from Herman Miller.

Ergonomics is an issue that relies on the entire workspace, not just an individual’s workstation. It is about knowledge, culture and variety. Not only do we need to train people to understand the importance of using technology in the most appropriate way, we need to encourage them to move when they are sitting, and to get up and wander whenever they can. But most important in this regard is a culture that understands the complexities of ergonomics.

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