The term “workstation” is used to describe many different things. The broadest definition of workstation is the entire area accessed by a worker when performing a specific task or job cycle. A somewhat more restrictive definition of “workstation,” and one that has gained usage in the last twenty years is; a terminal or personal computer (PC), usually connected to a mainframe or to a network of computers. This definition grew out of the concept of the workstation as the station at which computer work is done while the work product may be stored, and usually is, on a central mainframe system or on a network server. In colloquial usage the term workstation has evolved to mean any computer or terminal where work is performed.
The computers that are referred to as workstations span a broad range of computer power. They include systems that vary from sophisticated, high-powered computer used for computer-aided design (CAD), computeraid engineering (CAE), graphics, and simulations, all the way to simple data entry terminals with no independent central processing unit (CPU). A workstation typically includes a mouse, keyboard, monitor, and often, though not always, a CPU. It may also include peripheral devices such as a modem, digital camera, scanner, or printer.
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Computer Workstations And The Potential For Injury
PCs are a fixture in any business, large or small, and are used for word processing, data entry, and other functions. PCs bring with them the expected potential for improved productivity and efficiency. But what most people have discovered over time is that working on PCs for many hours a day can lead to injuries that can be quite severe. In a work setting this can lead to lost productivity, a reduction in morale, and increased costs for health care and workers compensation premiums.
The largest category of injury suffered by heavy computer users are musculoskeletal disorders. According to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) nearly two million people suffer work-related musculoskeletal disorders, including repetitive strain injury caused by computer use, every year. In the case of computer related musculoskeletal disorders, the most common are the result of repetitive stress. Many of these are called cumulative trauma disorders (CTDs). Injuries of this type are disorders of the musculo-nervous system that involve nerve compression and wear and tear on muscles and tendons. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that all CTDs—not just those related to computer use—account for 32 percent of occupational illness cases.
Repetitive stress injuries generally can be by far the most serious injuries suffered by computer users. Perhaps the best-known type of repetitive-stress injury is carpaltunnel syndrome, which is usually related to keyboard use. The syndrome is the result of putting pressure on the nerves that run from the hand to the arm and is characterized by pain and weakness in the hand, arm, and even the shoulder.
Another common problem associated with computer use is eyestrain. James Sheedy of the University of California—Berkeley estimates that ten million cases of eyestrain are reported each year. As Don Sellers noted in Zap!: How Your Computer Can Hurt You and What You Can Do About It, “The computer is a much more visually demanding environment than people think.” To reduce employee eyestrain, employers should adjust lighting to reduce glare on computer screens and encourage workers to take regular breaks to look away from the screen and refocus on a distant object. Employees, particularly those who already wear bifocals, may also want to invest in eyeglasses designed specifically to be worn while working with a computer.
An Employee-friendly Workstation And Environment
Dr. Bruce Bernard of the U.S. National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health encourages employers to evaluate the nature and extent of keyboard use.
Generally, he says, “carpal tunnel syndrome is not found in the workplace unless tendonitis appears there first. You don’t want to wait until tendonitis presents itself. You really need to take seriously employee complaints of discomfort.” Sellers echoes this approach, urging employers “to examine the workstation environment.
Just simply look at how a person is using a workstation: Is he or she comfortable?” To ensure a comfortable workstation, employers need to be aware of workplace ergonomics, which is the effective and safe interaction between people and things.
When reviewing the current work environment, employers should look to see if employees have already made their own adjustments to improve comfort. For example, has an employee placed his monitor on a stack of books, added a cushion to his chair, or placed the legs of his desk on blocks? If so, then clearly the original workstation configuration is not effective. Employers may then consider investing in ergonomically designed furniture and computer accessories that can be adjusted to meet the needs of an individual employee.
Employers should also encourage employees who work extensively with computers to take regular breaks.
Marvin Dainoff, director of the Center for Ergonomics Research at Miami University of Ohio, urges employers to “remember that people are not machines.” Dainoff also recommends stretching as a means of eliminating musculoskeletal problems. Finally, Bernard and other experts urge employers to create an environment where employees feel they can speak up when they are experiencing any pain or discomfort. The sooner a problem is identified, the greater the employer’s chance of controlling related costs.
For a thorough checklist of the things that an employer should consider when setting up or retrofitting a workstation for maximum ergonomic efficiency, OSHA provides a web site. The checklist provided there covers how best to set-up the monitor, keyboard, work surface, chair, mouse, document holder, wrist rest, telephone, and desk light. The OSHA checklist may be found at http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/etools/computerworkstations/checklist.html.