Warning! Computers can cripple you (continued)

Written By: Peter Abrahams
Content Copyright © 2006 Bloor. All Rights Reserved.

In the previous article I wrote about the devastating effect of repetitive strain injury (RSI) and some ways to avoid being struck down. In this article I will look at some technologies that can help both as preventative measures and as assistive measures for sufferers.

RSI and other work related injuries such as backache, neck-ache, headaches, eyestrain and tingling in the fingers are now becoming very common complaints. In a recent survey by ICM for Home Working Solutions nearly 50% of computer users complained of at least one of the symptoms and even more worryingly this rose to 70% for the 18–24 age group. The problem for users and their employers is that mild symptoms can turn critical very quickly so everyone should be aware of the issue and avoid even minor symptoms.

All these symptoms are caused by some mixture of:

  • Un-ergonomic work stations.
  • Intensive working on the computer without breaks.
  • Gripping the mouse for long periods causing muscle fatigue.
  • Repetitive small movements in particular, but not only, single and double mouse clicks.
  • Precise but small movements such as moving items in a page layout.
  • Bad typing position, bent wrists, two finger typing or trying to press more than one key with the same hand.

So how can you continue to use the computer and get the job done without having adverse side effects, and if you are already suffering how can you avoid further pain? There are a number of technology solutions:

Speech Recognition can significantly reduce, or potential eliminate, use of the keyboard and mouse and thus avoiding most of the above problems. Dragon NaturallySpeaking is the market leader and enables dictation of emails, word processing etc., it also supports commands so files can be opened, saved, formatted and anything else that a keyboard might be used for. It can be used to position a mouse but this is time consuming, so speech recognition works best with packages that can be driven without using the mouse, or in conjunction with an ergonomic mouse, when a mouse is essential (see below).

Voice recording offers an interesting alternative for some applications. Emails are the prime example sending a recording of your voice rather than a typed message. Azam provide a series of tools to record and play messages and send them in compressed format via email. This means no typing and has the advantage for everyone of adding tone to a message (something that has always been done rather badly by smileys). The Azam software technology will allow the recording of anything, including meetings and phone calls, so removing the need to take notes which can be extremely difficult for people with RSI. Under the Azam Disabilities Initiative (ADI), persons with RSI qualify for free licenses via participating GP surgeries, Local authorities and RSI charities.

Ergonomic mice come in various shapes and sizes with roller balls, joysticks and larger sizes and it may require some trial and error to find the right one for a particular person. The Quill Virtual Hands Free (VHF) is an exceptional design combining a mouse and click software. The hand rests in the mouse in a hand-shake, rather than a palm down, position and there is no need for the hand to grip the mouse at all so it is much more comfortable to use. The software will intelligently click, for example if the mouse is moved to a button and held there it will automatically mouse click once. This requires the user to learn a modified way of using the mouse but once mastered means that the fingers do not have to click and double click which is a prime cause of RSI and painful for sufferers.

Work break software is designed to monitor the use of the computer and recommend or enforce breaks. Wellnomics’ WorkPace monitors keyboard and mouse usage and recommends micro breaks of just a few seconds and macro breaks of a longer duration with recommended stretching exercises. The short breaks are enough to allow muscles to relax and the blood to flow and toxins to be flushed out. The longer breaks ensure that there is no long term stiffness. I have just started using it and it is very effective ensuring that you do not go long periods without a break. It can also be used to monitor employees to ensure that they are not over doing it with the potential of injury. WorkPace and Quill VHF are both available from Home Working Solutions.

RSI Support Groups can give inestimable help to people suffering from RSI and will also help people to avoid being afflicted. The London RSI Support Group provides this function for London but similar groups can be found around the globe.

With better understanding and good use of technology we should be able to avoid RSI becoming a plague and we should be able to help people suffering RSI to continue to enjoy the benefits of computers and the web.