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 Comfortable Changes for Computer Work Spaces at School

Are your school's one-size-fits-all computer workstations meant to accommodate students of all ages, shapes, and sizes? A few quick and easy changes can help ensure that all students are comfortable as they type and surf. Included: Tips for safe computer use that you can share with parents.

Tips for Ergonomically Correct Computer Use

Click HERE for a list of recommendations for computer users -- children included -- to follow to prevent repetitive strain injuries. Print the tips to share with parents and post a copy by every computer in your school.

*er-go-nom-ics -- The applied science of equipment design intended to maximize productivity by reducing operator fatigue and discomfort.

A repetitive strain injury (RSI) is a condition that occurs when repeated stress is placed on a joint and on tendons and muscles surrounding the joint. According to The Typing Injury FAQ, the most common RSIs include these:

  • tenosynovitis -- an inflammation of a tendon sheath
  • tendonitis -- an inflammation of a tendon
  • epicondylitis -- an inflammation of a tendon where it attaches to the bones at the elbow
  • carpal tunnel syndrome -- a condition caused by compression of the median nerve in the hand and wrist
  • cubital tunnel syndrome -- a condition caused by compression of the ulnar nerve near the elbow
  • thoracic outlet syndrome -- a condition caused by compression of the nerves and blood vessels in the neck and shoulder

In kids, RSIs can sometimes be caused by playing a musical instrument, participating in sports, and using computers or video games. Kids' bodies are resilient, however, and the incidence of RSI in people younger than 30 has always been very low. That appears to be changing. In a survey of university students recently reported in The American Journal of Medicine, fewer than half the students said they never had RSI symptoms when using a computer. Forty-one percent said they had had pain or numbness after several hours of computer use, 6.9 percent had had symptoms after an hour or less; 3.2 percent reported symptoms after a few minutes, and 2.5 percent said they had had symptoms during almost all computer-related activities.


No one is sure why the average age for the onset of RSIs is decreasing, but many experts believe that early, heavy -- and ergonomically incorrect -- computer use is a significant factor. In studies of computer use among elementary and middle school students, researchers at the Cornell University Ergonomics Lab identified two factors that can contribute to the development of RSIs. The first is poor workstation design, including inadequate lighting, inappropriate furniture, and poor workstation layout. The second is poor work habits, including poor posture and sustained periods of computer use. Poor posture, the researchers noted, is often the result of poor workstation design.

In a 1999 presentation to the National Ergonomics Conference, Alan Hedge director of Cornell's Ergonomics Lab, reported that studies of computer use in schools reveal "a marked lack of attention and commitment to consideration of ergonomic issues." The typical school technology plan, Hedge noted, focuses only on the technology and does not address workstation design issues that can have long-term effects on student health. Schools, he said, need to

  • consider the ergonomics of classroom use,
  • train students in good ergonomic practices and healthful postures,
  • budget for appropriate workstations to support computer use.

Go to Ergonomics and Children: How to Prevent Injury in the Classroom to read the entire presentation.


One of the ergonomic factors schools need to consider is that students come in a variety of sizes and shapes and computer workstations at school are most often "one size fits all." Furniture that's too big or too small and equipment that's too close or too far away can encourage poor posture and foster unhealthful work habits. Computer workstations that adapt to fit individual students are less likely to promote the development of RSIs.

Of course, even if the computer workstations at your school are woefully ergonomically incorrect, there's probably no money to adapt or replace them. The real question is: What can you do with what you have? The answer? More than you think! In many cases, you can "fix" your computer workstations -- and your students' bad habits -- without spending a cent!

Computer Ergonomics for Elementary School Students (CergoS), a Web site created with a grant from the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), provides illustrations of an ergonomically correct workstation layout. More importantly, however, the site contains detailed plans for creating -- or helping students create -- accessories, such as foot rests, wrist rests, back pillows, and booster seats, that can be used to make generic workstations fit individual students. All the accessories are simple to create using readily available -- and usually free -- materials.

The site also includes illustrated ideas for students on how to set up a computer workstation that fits properly and a printable poster, How to Be Comfortable at Your Workstation, illustrating correct computer posture.

"We have to show children what good computer posture is and start teaching them good posture habits as soon as they're exposed to computers," CergoS creator Inger Williams told Education World. "Kids need to know that they don't have to sit perfectly all the time. In fact, to get muscle relief, they need to move around and use many different postures for short periods of time. They should, however, always start from -- and eventually get back to -- the best possible baseline posture: feet supported, elbows at keyboard height, arms and hands in a straight line level with the desktop, shoulders down, mouse close to the keyboard (or directly in front of the student if the keyboard isn't being used), eyes level with the primary viewing area, head straight, neck slightly bent, and lower back supported."


Williams, a work and school ergonomics consultant, reminded, "Teachers cannot instill good computer habits by themselves, though. This is a serious issue for students, and parents need to be involved. Schools can help raise parental awareness by holding sessions on how to create a good home computer setup for a child or by including information about computer ergonomics in their [acceptable use policies]."

Williams also noted that teachers should follow the same principles -- and aim for the same computer postures and viewing conditions -- as their students. "Teachers," she said, "also need to practice good posture. They need to move around and not sit still for too long. They need to take a good look at their workstations and try to implement some of the same simple solutions recommended for students."

Teachers can also benefit from consulting their school district's ergonomic expert for advice on teaching and practicing good computer habits. Didn't know you had one? Most districts have an occupational therapist on staff for special education students. Those therapists are trained in ergonomics; they can be a valuable resource for classroom teachers as well.

According to Cornell's Alan Hedge, two separate 1999 surveys on lifetime computer use found that if current rates continue, today's child will spend an average of two years of his or her life using e-mail and at least 23 years using the Internet. Students who don't learn good computer work habits today are more likely to suffer computer-related health problems in the future.



Article by Linda Starr
Education World®
Copyright © 2001 Education World


Links updated 08/05/2005