A Painful Lesson

I know, you’ve probably been hearing about ergonomics ever since they started applying the word to office workers. If you’re not familiar with the concept, ergonomics is the study of designing equipment and devices to fit the human body and its cognitive abilities. In other words, if your work causes you pain or injury, ergonomics seeks to address what ails you. If you, as an estimator, are in pain or feel excessive fatigue during your workday, you may need to change the way your work space and tools are laid out.

These injuries can take years to manifest and are commonly known as repetitive motion or repetitive strain injury (RSI). These injuries are a potentially debilitating condition resulting from overusing the hands to perform a repetitive task, such as typing, clicking a mouse or writing. The result is damage to muscles, tendons and nerves of the neck, shoulders, forearms and hands, which may cause pain, weakness, numbness or impairment of motor control. The three primary risk factors are poor posture, poor technique and overuse. It turned out I was guilty of all three.

My story

About seven years ago, I started getting severe pain in my neck and both wrists. It turned out the pain was from the three causes listed above. An X-ray of my neck showed I was developing an injury from looking down at drawings (which I had been doing for 30 years). I ended up going to a chiropractor, as he could address the pain without drugs. Then I discovered onscreen digital takeoff. I was now looking straight ahead instead of down. The neck pain disappeared within a few days, and the chiropractor didn’t get any more of my money. Furthermore, I eliminated the wrist pain by adopting several corrections to my work space.

Preventing RSI

Here are some steps you can take to prevent this type of injury. First, you need a good chair. Note that some chairs may be labeled “ergonomic” but are not. Do research before making your purchase. 

Next, you need to properly set up your workstation. Three pieces of equipment require special attention.

First, the keyboard: positioned above your thighs, you should be able to reach the keys with your elbows at your side and bent at 90 degrees and your forearms roughly parallel to the ground. If your elbows are at more than a 90-degree angle, you will fatigue more quickly.

Second is your mouse: positioned just to one side of your keyboard, so you don’t have to lean, stretch or hunch. Many people have one shoulder noticeably lower than the other—this can be caused by repetitive stretching for a mouse.

Third is your monitor: directly in front of you (not off to the side), so that your eye level is somewhere between the top of the screen and 20 percent from the top. The screen should be about 15–25 inches from your eyes.

Typing techniques 

Another area of risk is the technique you use for typing and mousing. There are three important components to a proper typing technique. First, keep your wrists straight: the straighter your wrists, the less strain you put on tendons and nerves. A split or a natural keyboard and an ergonomic mouse may aid you in keeping your wrists straight. Second, let your hands float: This means don’t rest your wrists on the desk, keyboard or a wrist rest when you are typing. Let them hover over the keys. This has several advantages: You allow the big muscles in your back to share some of the work; it also allows you to keep your wrists straight, which is impossible if they are planted on a wrist rest; and it’s easier to get to the hard-to-reach keys. And, finally, don’t strain your fingers: When you need to press a hard-to-reach key—e.g., control, shift or backspace—don’t stretch out your pinkie. Instead, move your whole hand and use your index or middle finger. Don’t use one hand when you need to hit two keys simultaneously (e.g., control-X or shift-Y). Use a light touch when typing; don’t pound the keys.

Exercise is a very important preventative step. If you do not have the strength and stamina needed to use proper posture and techniques, you will eventually start feeling pain and fatigue while working. After seeing a doctor about my pain, I realized how weak I had become. I did not have proper posture and fatigued quickly. There are many types of exercise that can help, including yoga, Pilates and tai chi. For me, Pilates exercises helped tremendously.

Take care of yourselves, estimators. Your career depends on it.

This article draws from the work of Prof. Clayton Scott. His website is http://web.eecs.umich.edu/~cscott/rsi.html.

About the Author

Stephen Carr

Estimating Columnist
Stephen Carr has been in the electrical construction business since 1971. He started Carr Consulting Services—which provides electrical estimating and educational services—in 1994. Contact him at 805.523.1575 or steve@electrical-estimating.com .

Stay Informed Join our Newsletter

Having trouble finding time to sit down with the latest issue of
ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR? Don't worry, we'll come to you.