Thursday, July 09, 2009

Ergo/nomics

When I moved into my office in my current department, I was not provided with office furniture, so I rummaged around in campus and department storerooms and acquired the basic items from whatever was available. Over the years, my office furniture has not changed a lot -- some new (old) bookcases have been added, the filing cabinets have departed, and I have gone through a succession of (free!) office chairs as they have become available.

Note: My department is not typically so cheap. Everyone hired after me has nice new office furniture. I was hired as part of a 2-body deal and fell into the trap of just being 'grateful' to have gotten the second offer etc. so I was very undemanding about details like office furniture.

Because I did not set up my office furniture with much care or thought, I eventually had a few physical problems that inevitably result from spending a lot of time in one place (a chair) doing one thing (working at a computer), especially when these furniture items are not well configured.

I am of average height for a female person, but I have long had trouble (not just here) getting the desk-chair spatial relations right. With many desks, if I raise the chair enough so that my arms are in a good position for the keyboard, my feet do not reach the floor. This is not a good situation because eventually my feet go numb and later hurt. Ergo, I've come up with some partial solutions (footrests; not sitting still for so long etc.), but I have never done anything major, like getting new office furniture (which I would have to pay for myself).

But I'm thinking about it now. Do I really want to spend the next 20 years with my ergonomically not-so-great office furniture? I'm considering chucking the big old desks and just getting a slab of something to rest on something else of adjustable height. It will probably look weird, as do most ergonomically correct furniture items, but at least my feet will touch the floor and my arms will descend gracefully at the appropriate angle to the keyboard.

Either that or I should just proclaim that my office is now in the cafe down the street and just spend all my time there, typing on my laptop in various sorts of comfortable chairs.

33 comments:

estraven said...

I am 5'7" and never had any problems with reaching the floor. On the other hand, I was occasionally a bit short for the blackboard, as were many of my male colleagues.
When I became full professor, I gave myself a present: a Stokke (now called Varier) Variable Balans chair.
It was expensive, but 7 years later it's as good as new - and so is my spine.

RJ said...

I totally relate!

No chair I ever sit in allows my feet to touch the floor. I am tall sitting down - long in the back - can hold my own with six feet tall males. But then I am five feet two standing up, so my legs are rather short!

I spend half my life with one foot tucked under my other knee, and am prone to shoulder pain in bad chairs.

One thing that helped hugely was getting a good chair - it wasn't expensive, and so worth it.

There is probably a feminist studies thesis to be written about the sexism inherent in furniture design.

Zuska said...

PLEASE spend the money to get ergonomically correct office furniture! First, you will benefit. I spent several weeks in physical therapy when I could not work at my full capacity because I did not have adequate office furniture/computer configurations. It was a cost to my university and a cost to my full productivity. Spending the money now to buy ergonomic office chairs and other sorts of office stuff will not only benefit you, but will benefit someone who may come after you and inherit your furniture which is a doubly good reason to spend the extra $$ it takes to get that ergonomically correct furniture. If you don't care that much about your back/arms/neck, think about those who will come after you! Also, you will set a precedent that it is acceptable and worth it to spend money to buy office furniture that is not punishing to the arms/neck/back. When I apportioned some of my yearly budget to buy good chairs not just for myself but for my office staff as well it sent a message throughout the college. The chair of the industrial engineering department came by to thank me for setting a good example. These are not trivial decisions.

Anonymous said...

If you were in my University (UK) all you would need to do is go the Occupational Health Office, bleat a bit about RSI and back/neck strain and then they would get new office furniture in a shot. (OK maybe desk and ergonomic chair only, but perhaps also adjustable monitor stand, foot, wrist rests).

There must be some sort of "Health and Safety at Work" legislation that means they (your Uni not department) has to provide a fit and proper place for you to do your work. After all you are the most litigious place in the world.

Greg said...

I've been considering a treadmill desk where you can stand up and walk slowly while you work.

Goodness knows you are due for some good furniture. Your department should give you a chair, don't you think?

FEP said...

You SHOULD get new office furniture that is good for your health! You don't want this problem become a problem that you might need to see a physician, especially when one is aging! Considering how much time you spend in your office working for the department/university. I find it ridiculous and plain wrong that a professor/employee has to pay for office furniture himself/herself, although it may be true in reality. I know it is impossible to pay for furniture with grant money. But can you talk to the department chair about this? A department usually has some sort of operating/discretionary budget that surely can deal with this important issue of one of its citizens.

Anonymous said...

A now-retired professor from my university used a nearby restaurant as his office. Everyone knew where to find him, and the restaurant even named a sandwich after him.

Jenn, PhD said...

I"m a bit below average female height, so I definitely have to deal with the dangley foot issue. I'd vote for investing in new furniture or adapting what you have to fit. It's just not worth the wear and tear on your body (as I'm discovering now - I've had 2 different physiotherapists in the last weeks ask me what the heck I did to my back and neck to end up this way....)

Rhett said...

I installed an adjustable keyboard tray in my desk. This sounds like exactly what you need. Put it at whatever height and distance is perfect for you.

On another note, I find it amusing that most companies will not let you work with a non-ergonomic set up. In my office, I have a cheap chair I bought from office depot and a desk that is at least 50 years old. Many of the other faculty have chairs that are 50 years old.

Anonymous said...

Why do you need to pay for yourself? That's what discretionary money is for...

Anonymous said...

If you're looking for a comfy desk, I suggest you check out Biomorph. They offer desks that are very well designed from both an ergonomic and an aesthetic viewpoint. And they have adjustable height surfaces that would allow you to set the desk at the proper height so that your feet can actually touch the ground. And, no, I don't work for Biomorph... I just think they have some very useful products :-)

Anonymous said...

my office came with an ergonomic chair that no matter how I adjusted hurt my back. To buy any other brand of chair is against university purchasing rules (even though I would be using start up money which is supposedly 'no strings attached') so I ended up spending my own money to buy a chair that doesn't make me cry. Worth every penny of the $600 it cost me.

so, my vote is .. do it.

Dr M said...

My thoughts:

1. How come you can't have your obviously obsolete furniture replaced when people hired later (presumably moving into existing free office space) can get new furniture? I take it they aren't taking that money out of their own pockets? Surely this must be a point to negotiate with whomever is in charge of furniture?

2. At least as far as desk and office chair go, yes, it's probably worth making a private investment. Especially if you are already feeling physical effects from your ergonomically poor working conditions. Don't wait till you develop actual medical problems because of it. A really good chair is likely to cost a lot of money (but it's worth it), but a good enough desk need not cost a fortune. For example IKEA has a series of desks that should meet your needs at affordable cost.

3. Try suggesting to your department/group or other suitable administrative unit to get a trained occupational therapist to visit, spending 15 minutes or so with each person, giving advice and looking at how the work space, desk, computer, etcetera are set up. It really does pay off, and small changes can make a huge difference.

Dr. Wannabeamom said...

I have the same issue getting the desk-chair height right. When I work at my desk for too long I get a pinched nerve in my shoulder. I would splurge on the new furniture! One thing that has helped me is a program that alerts you to take small and big rest breaks to prevent injuries. My husband is a computer programmer and recommended it to me. The one I use is workrave (http://www.workrave.org/welcome/), but there are others out there. At first I thought it was making me stop too much, but later I realized I was getting much more done because I never became tense after working long hours. You can change the time in between breaks from the defaults too.

Cloud said...

Oh, definitely take this seriously. I have permanent damage in my right arm that started because of a particularly bad setup in grad school (graphics computer set up by a man who was 6'5". I am a 5'6" woman and that just didn't work well.) and became permanent because I kept working on slightly suboptimal setups.

At one point, I almost had to change careers. Now, I can continue to function thanks to some expensive specialized equipment ($100 each for the keyboard and the trackball). But my arm will never be "normal" again. There is always some discomfort and frequently some pain.

From your description, you probably need at least a keyboard tray. These can be purchased from an office supply store and attached to just about any desk. Your university might have an ergonomics specialist they can send out to help you understand what your set up should accomplish in terms of body mechanics, or you can find the info online. You can fix your setup with new furniture or hacks to fix your old furniture. But definitely do it. These sorts of injuries are surprisingly debilitating- at my worst, I can't hold anything in my right hand, because I just drop it.

A Life Long Scholar said...

I do my work sitting in a recliner, with my computer on a table over my lap (as opposed to resting on my lap) in a comfortable position for my arms to rest whilst typing. (The table pushes back out of the way when I need to get up.) I strongly recommend this sort of set-up, as no part of my body ever hurts from working thusly, but sitting upright at a desk and working usually hurts within a half an hour.

I obtained the recliner second-hand for $20, and adapted a rolling computer table for the desk by turning the top around so that it points the opposite direction from the base, and then putting a heavy weight on the base to keep it from tipping.

Anonymous said...

As someone who suffers from physical ailments that keep from working in 'normal' office furniture, I can relate. There are few items that enable me to work. Without them, I am toast.

You can ask you Dean to buy ergonomic things for you, especially if you have a note from the Dr.

My favorite keyboard is the Kinesis Contoured Keyboard. http://www.kinesis-ergo.com/

My favorite mouse is by 3M. http://solutions.3m.com/wps/portal/3M/en_US/ergonomics/home/products/ergonomicmouse/

And I also use a 3M foot rest at my computer, which helps you align your body. http://www.staples.com/office/supplies/p1_3M-Adjustable-Footrest_103919_Business_Supplies_10051_SEARCH

Curt F. said...

One thing I tried (while writing my thesis) was a "standing desk". I had to improvise mine out of regular desks by putting footstools and boxes on top, but if you're going to spend the big bucks, get something height-adjustable.

I found that working while standing was great for cranking out emails, firing off the last few tedious paragraphs in a long section/chapter, and other stuff you want to dispose of quickly. Sitting down worked better for deep-thought type activities.

So my dream in office furniture is a sit/stand adjustable desk like this one, but I'm sure there are cheaper ones out there.

No less than Donald Rumsfeld (I know, right...?) was an enthusiast of the standing desk!

Anonymous said...

I'm 5'2'' and I had no problems even if I'm glued to my computer (I've been an assistant prof. for the last 4.5 years). I have an expensive super-comfortable chair, a cheap but extremely necessary foot rest, and a wireless keyboard/mouse that gives me a lot of freedom. This is enough to be comfortable during long hours of computer work.

yolio said...

Working long hours on a laptop is definitely not ergonomically good. The keyboard puts you wrists in at a bad angle and you are forced to look down. Over time, you end up hunched forward with your shoulders pulled up to your ears:

http://www.safecomputingtips.com/laptop-ergonomics-tips.html

I am always surprised when people are willing to make due with bad desk set ups. I think I am extra-sensitive about it because I have had wrist issues. When I was broke, I worked data-entry jobs. This left me with carpal tunnel issues and lighting fast typing skills. I often "impress" my colleagues with my ten-keying skillz.

scout said...

I think folks have already said this, more or less.

But, here's an extra vote for a high-quality, under-desk, adjustable-height, adjustable-angle KEYBOARD TRAY.

The tray puts the keyboard/mouse where I need it. The monitor stays up on the desk. My feet can go on the floor. It's nice.

Anonymous said...

I'm 5'1", but have no problem typing and having my feet rest on the floor at the same time. i think my desk is just short. It's one of those typical office-cubicle desks (minus the cubicle wall).

You could also replace your chair with one of those huge exercise balls. They are very comfy to sit on while working at the computer, except that obviously you can't lean back.

Anonymous said...

If you dont want to end up with chronic back pain DO IT. But dont let them fob you off. You need to insist that you have a chair that is adjustable to the right height for you (many are made for men and dont actually go low enough) and that the desk height also adjusts accordingly - standard desks do not go low enough. Do your research and get the right set up for you. Keep asking how they are going to make the desk the right height so that you can sit correctly on your chair. With the right set up I can work - without it I am unable to do more than 3 hours a day. Buy it yourself if you need to, its cheaper than the therapy and massage associated with chronic conditions - I speak from experience on that one!

Anonymous said...

When my department moved into a new building the faculty were asked to test and vote on possible office chairs. The department went with the most popular chair. The rest of the faculty were males, significantly older and bigger than I am.
It may not surprise you, therefore, to learn that my choice for the most comfortable chair was not adopted!

Anonymous said...

I am a taller than average (5'11') new FSP and was not told when I was negotiating my "startup" package that I was responsible for buying my own furniture from my limited budget, mostly intended for a big fancy microscope. Rather than suffer unreasonably, IKEA was my salvation...a functional, adjustable, large, inexpensive and aesthetically pleasing desk, with (many) shelves to match. I splurged on a decent chair, and still ended up paying under $1500 for the whole office renovation. Save your spine!

Kevin said...

I acquired back and wrist problems after 10 years at a badly fitting desk. They cleared up when I got a properly adjustable chair and had the desk replaced with a table with adjustable legs. The table is much cheaper than desk, and the chair was not that expensive either---I did have to take the arms off the chair that they provided me, but that was a simple 3-minute change.

I keep desk supplies in my filing cabinet and book case, so I don't miss the desk drawers at all.

I found that keyboard trays did not work at all for me---almost all of the ones available at the time were thicker than a table top, and I have long upper arms relative to my trunk, so I need the keyboard almost resting on my thighs.

EliRabett said...

As the proud owner of a crushed disk, I've found that simple, hard chairs are best.

Doctor Pion said...

I am tall, but that does not eliminate the potential problems inherent in a bad wrist angle for many office situations. A lowered keyboard is often the solution, but I prefer a more substantial mod than a plastic keyboard tray.

You should document your history of office furniture and submit a written request for furniture you were due N years earlier with the added caveat of potential health issues that should concern your employer (particularly if you put them in writing). On the other hand, one advantage of furniture whose next home will be "surplus" is that no one will notice if you do a minor field modification to it on a weekend. I have in mind using a Sawzall to cut out part of the desk and re-framing it at the correct height.

Gingerale said...

Save your spine, save your eyes, save your arms, save your body. You'll have your body longer than you have your job.

Anonymous said...

People assume all kinds of things about others, not only based on gender, but always based on some stupid stereotype. To me, some are more irritating than others. Examples:

1. I am junior science FSP and a foreigner, so I am asked: How did you come to the U.S., did you come through marriage? No? Then HOW?? (puzzled look).

2. When I started my position as an Assistant Professor, I went to a MSP's office, from a different department to introduce myself and talk about some collaboration I thought we could start. He said hi, and proceeded to ask: "so what are you doing here? Are you here with your husband?". He was not interested in what I was telling him at all, so I found other collaborators. Too bad for him, lost some money and publications:)

3. I am blonde/blue eyed/round faced and I have an accent and I am always asked if I am russian, which is quite irritating to me. Others from the same country as me who have darker complexion/hair/eyes are asked if they are Mexican, so it's NOT the accent specifically. When I say I am not russian, some proceed to insist that in any case I most certainly speak russian though or (at this point they seem desperate) AT LEAST understand some russian, because my country is an Eastern European Country, so they are "all out there", they all must speak russian. Last time that happened I retaliated by incensantly asking that person about something I sensed they are very insecure about hehehe. He should have shut up before going on and on....

4. I am in a commuting marriage and I was recently been asked: "So, isn't your son getting crazy without his dad?" That's another stereotype. If the male is not around, the child MUST be already screwed up, male presence is paramount. Well, not really, not always and most certainly in some cases the male presence could even be harmful (if they are abusive, not reliable etc).

All stereotypes, and the list could go on...

Anonymous said...

I posted the previous answer in the wrong place. It was about the " you are a woman, you look like a secretary" post. Oh well, my bad...

kelle said...

I've always been very egro-conscious and have indulged (with grant, not personal, funds) in several different highly recommended products.

I *love* the Humanscale Foot Machine. It's very comfortable, adjustable and attractive:
http://www.humanscale.com/products/FM300.cfm

I've used both the Humanscale Liberty chair and the Herman-Miler Aeron chair. I have a slight preference for the petite-size Aeron chair with the arm rests that have an adjustable angle. But the Liberty chair is prettier...

I also think the Humanscale keyboard trays are the best out there. They are very sturdy and adjustable.
http://www.humanscale.com/products/keyboard_systems.cfm

Also, in my experience, Humanscale offers a 40-50% educational discount, so don't be put off by the sticker shock.

no, i don't work for Humanscale...I'm just a fan!

I also think it's down-right abusive how poorly grad student offices are furnished...at least profs with 50-year-old chairs have the resources to do something about it.

John D said...

re: the adjustable-height desks that others mentioned are "really expensive," you might want to take a look at GeekDesk (www.GeekDesk.com) -- they are quite cost effective. I have had one of their "GeekDesk Mini" desks for a few months now, and love it.