Ergonomic adventures

Just about anyone employed in a modern workplace has, at one time or another, received one of those ubiquitous ergonomics memos telling them how to use a computer for hours on end without winding up paralyzed or blind.

These helpful missives tell you how to sit, where to sit, where to place your elbows and where to find your elbows if you’ve somehow misplaced them.

Such instructions are quite comprehensible to people who grew up attached to a computer keyboard, but for those of us who are a little older – particularly those of us who grew in up dusty, smoke-filled newspaper offices – they can be thoroughly puzzling.

Not long ago, our newsroom received just such a memo, titled “Computer Workstation Safety: Five Steps to Safer Ergonomics.”

At one time, even the title of this memo would have left me scratching my head. Until 2001 or so, I’d always assumed the term “ergonomics” had something to do with methods of calculating the economic impacts of an orgy.

Live and learn…

Other terms and directions I encountered in my workstation safety memo, however, left me somewhat baffled.

For example, the directions recommended that I “apply neutral positions.”

Uh-huh.

Does anybody really know what a “neutral” position is, other than when dealing with an automobile transmission?

Well, I thought, when a transmission is in neutral, nothing happens. I tried applying this principle in the newsroom and, I have to admit, doing nothing has its advantages – until the city editor begins bellowing “Are you dead or just resting your eyes?!”

Then there was the recommendation that one should always make sure that “monitor is at screen level.”

I’m no computer whiz (you already figured that out, right?), but my computer screen appears to be an integral part of the computer monitor. Therefore, if the monitor isn’t at screen level, one or both of them is free-floating somewhere else. Weird…

Another part of the safety memo recommends “elbows rest at side.”

Curiouser and curiouser. I checked and determined, within a reasonable doubt, that my elbows are always at my sides. There’s an elbow on my left side and an elbow on my right side. They just, like, hang there.

Perhaps the most distressing of the ergonomic recommendations was the suggestion that I use “light pressure on keys – no pounding.”

Hey, I grew up writing newspaper stories on an 80-pound piece of pig iron otherwise know as a Remington upright manual typewriter. Just like my current computer, it had a keyboard, but there the resemblance ends.

Old newspaper typewriters had to be beaten into submission. Pounding was how we got the keys to print little letters on pieces of paper. Such ham-fisted handling of the keyboard also let everybody around us know that we were probably working on the biggest story of the decade.

Now I’m supposed to dance across the keys like a kitten walking on marshmallows simply to be ergonomically correct?

It ain’t gonna happen, amigos…

Originally published November 12, 2006