Elance Blog

Avoiding Injury And RSI In Your Home Or Office

As a person who has done both the office nine-to-fiver as well as freelancing from home, I'll tell you one of the most important elements of having an healthy work environment is making sure your workstation is safe and ergonomically sound.

Throughout my college years and my early professional career, I was the college "dude" taking my laptop to the couch to overload my brain with the Food Network while mindlessly chugging through my work in the most non-ergonomic positioning ever. I never took ergonomics, Repetitive Strain Injury, and workstation health very seriously – that is until I noticed some serious lower back pain that felt like a monkey wrench twisting my spine into a pretzel.

I then started to pay attention to the numbers: In the case of a professional, 40-hour-a-week work environment, you’ll spend close to three months behind the glare of an LCD screen in one calendar year. And according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 34 percent of all lost-workday injury and illness is caused by RSI. Combine that startling statistic with the reported $20 billion in costs annually, and you’ve got yourself a serious headache. (Let’s not get started on Carpal Tunnel Syndrome or Computer Vision Syndrome either.)

And don’t think for a second that RSI only affects your only your hands or lower back – it can affect the neck, shoulders, upper arm, forearm, upper back, and wrists as well. Symptoms of pain can also come in a number of forms for different areas. Typically, you should watch out for soreness in your neck, upper back, and shoulders, while tingling, numbness, loss of feeling or grip can be signs of RSI in your hands. Also, keep an eye out for tense muscles in your arm and should region.

Here are a few pointers I use that have really improved my workstation and overall health:

1. Move, Look, And Stretch: The RSI Action committee at Harvard University recommends that you take many short breaks rather than a few long ones. “Taking a break can be as simple as taking your hands off the keyboard and letting your arms droop at your sides. Every half hour, get up from your desk and stretch to loosen your neck and shoulder muscles. Try to take 10 minutes of breaks every hour, more if you need it.” Additionally, take some time to shift your eyesight away from your monitor to a far away object to relieve strain in your eyes.

2. Have Good Posture: This is a biggie. OSHA.gov, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration division of the Department of Labor suggests that your head, neck, shoulders, and upper arms to be in-line with your torso. Your upper arms and elbows should be close to your body and not extended outward, while your forearms should bend at about a 90-degree angle to your upper arm. Your wrists and hands should be straight (not bent up/down or sideways) and should not rest on sharp or hard edges. There’s a lot to cover in posture, so I suggest getting the full rundown at OSHA’s Ergonomic Solutions checklist.

3. Configure Your Desktop: More from OSHA.gov: Your mouse or trackball should be located right next to your keyboard so it can be operated without reaching, and the top of your screen should be at or below eye level so you can read without bending your head or neck down. The distance to your monitor should allow you to read the screen clearly without leaning, and glare should be kept to a minimum. If using a document holder, it should be placed around the same height and distance as the monitor screen to minimize neck movement. Your room and work area should be well lit and should be rid of any potential glare sources.

4. Avoid Bad Habits: This is a particular one that I am guilty of. Your keyboard was designed with two sets of Shift/option keys – use them! Avoid using the left Shift/option for any keys on the left side, and vice versa. This will reduce the amount of tension in your hands and wrist big time. Also, avoid slouching, and do not use a wrist pad if you feel strain or tension in your hands or wrists. When using your keyboard and mouse, avoid using more pressure than you need to. And lastly, don’t sit surf on your couch for too long.

OSHA.gov - OSHA Ergonomic Solutions: Computer Workstations eTool
Harvard - RSI Action Committee

Happy 09-09-09, elancers! (Thanks Stephan!)