Thursday, September 23, 2004

Ergonomics (January, 1993)

by Jerry Thomas

Friday 29 January 1993

Yesterday’s Hawaii Tribune-Herald has a special section on Health and Community Help. It lists sixty-two different places to go and people to contact if you have problems with your health or if you need help. Through these agencies and organizations you can get medication, meditation, and mediation. You can get legal aid, first aid, and aid for AIDS. In addition to this long list of helpers, this section of the newspaper has ads for massage parlors, clinics for treating the pathology of all parts of the human anatomy, the mind, and related subjects.

It has articles about diet, exercise, chiropractic services, ways to overcome addictions, and the one that caught my attention : NEW WAYS TO BEAT PAIN AND FIGHT STRESS, by Debra Lee Baldwin, of the Copley News Service. After a discussion of headaches, backaches, and pains in the neck, under the sub-head CTS and PMS, the article says,

“Computer users, is your keyboard too high or too low? Think ergonomically: Your wrists and hands should be level with the keyboard. Avoid extension (hands angled upward) or flexion (hands angled downward). The danger is carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS); symptoms include numbness, tingling and pain in the hands and fingers ...”

The article goes on to tell about how the members of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons deal with this problem, using braces, splints, and “non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or cortisone injections.” Then the writer went into PMS, which I don’t have, so I went back to see how she suggested that I, as a computer user, should THINK. “Think ergonomically,” she wrote.

Help!! I studied the list of agencies and individuals that help the community with its problems. I needed help with that big word. Before I could begin to think ergonomically I needed to know what it meant. Should I call the Public Library?

Suddenly I remembered the dictionary that is electronically connected to my computer. I went to my bedroom/office. Placing my keyboard in its usual position, on my lap, I extended and flexed my hands, moved them to where they were level with the keyboard, and started typing in the usual manner. If I could overcome the numbness, tingling, and pain in my hands and fingers long enough to type “ergonomically Alt-W,” I might learn how I should think.

For “ergonomically” my computer dictionary’s response was “none found.” But when I entered “ergonomic,” my computer’s dirty little mind, lurking down there in my hard disk, suggested that I might mean “erotic.”


With my numb, tingling, pain-ridden hands and fingers, I reached for my dust-covered “Merriam Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary,” opened its mildewed pages, and found not ergonomically, nor ergonomic, but ergonomics. Close enough for me! I thought maybe the word came from the Latin “ergo,” meaning “therefore,” as in “cogito ergo sum.” But no. It’s from the Greek “erg,” meaning “work.” As in “ergophobia,” which I and a lot of others suffer from. It says,

“ergonomics n. pl but sing or pl in constr [erg- + -nomics (as in bionomics)] (1949): an applied science concerned with the characteristics of people that need to be considered in designing and arranging things that they use in order that people and things will interact most effectively and safely -- called also human engineering.

And now, as I really get immersed in the “work” of typing this article, my hands and fingers begin feeling less numb. The tingling is diminishing, too, and the pain is going away. “Working” has taken away all of my symptoms of CTS.

But where had those symptoms come from? Not from an improper arrangement of my keyboard and my hands (which, ergonomically speaking, might have led to unsafe, ineffective interaction .. ) but from some other interaction between my hands and things. In the old way of putting it, my hands were asleep. I had been sitting on them. Working awakened them.

After breakfast this morning I had been sitting on a barstool at the counter between my kitchen and dining room. With nothing else to do, I spread yesterday’s newspaper on the counter and read it again. It’s an unusually chilly morning for Hawaii. My hands felt cold; I warmed them by slipping them between the stool’s seat and my own seat. Sitting on my hands. Concentrating on the newspaper, forgetting about my hands, I devoted my attention to Debra Lee Baldwin’s article.

As I read about headaches and pains in the neck, I thought of my hands again. They felt uncomfortable. A kind of numbness, tingling, and even a little pain was creeping into my now warm hands. By then I was into CTS: these were the very symptoms I was reading about ! Were I employed, I might sue my employer for exposing me to CTS; being a retired teacher and part-time self-employed writer, I am forced to rely on my own resources.

When I found out about ergonomic thinking, and forced myself into that unusual activity, the source of all those symptoms came clear: I should have been working, instead of sitting on my hands. This revelation might be useful to some computer users in government agencies, and to those keyboard operators having problems with their hands in the private sector. Thanks to my new-found knowledge of human engineering, I might be able to get some writing done today.



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