According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, workers lost more than 647,000 workdays in 1996 due to work-related musculoskeletal disorders. As videographers, most of us are not exposed to a lot of the problems that those workers experience. So, next time you get a little down about sitting in front of your computer, be thankful that you're not hanging drywall.
While ergonomics is a broad and holistic approach to better movement within any workspace, we are going to focus our efforts on the desk-jockey. Like most event video editors and graphic artists, we spend the bulk of our days in front of the computer. Whether it's editing, creating graphics, writing emails, etc., it's sitting down and pecking away at our keyboard and mouse, all the while looking at a monitor.
(A note to all the videographers who would have liked to see the production side of videography included in the ergonomics discussion: while I would have loved to include a section on proper ergonomics for videographers shooting events, it is beyond the scope of this article. It's a whole different set of issues and challenges from those found back in the editing bay. But coming from someone who has lugged a 50-pound betacam for many days, I know we need it. Always remember to lift with your legs, and rest assured that we'll get back to this topic again, with all our emphasis on ergonomically sound approaches to live shoots.)
Contrary to Popular Belief . . .
One of the big misconceptions about the kinds of injuries that result from inattention to desk-jockey ergonomics is that they are related to the patient being "out of shape" or "lazy." This couldn't be further from the truth. You could put the world's strongest or fittest man in front of a keyboard, and if he types away long enough, doing it the wrong way, he'll eventually develop the same problems as his pasty, chip-chomping counterpart. I myself once had the misconception that people who developed these kinds of problems were just "doing it wrong," and if they would just pay attention, then they wouldn't have any problems. This was my understanding, until I discovered a pain in my wrist.
I consider myself to be pretty aware of my surroundings, so when I started noticing problems, I looked for the reasons. Ditching the wrist-rest mouse pad was one of the first things I did. Yikes, is that a bad idea. Next I made sure I was practicing good posture and that I wasn't straining to look around at my monitors. I tried a couple of other things, but nothing seemed to help, so I finally picked up the phone, with my sore wrist, and called in an expert.
What the Ergonomics Experts Say
The funny thing about attempting good ergonomics is that it can be a lot of trial and error, followed by overcompensation and compounding. You can try to fix one problem and create another one in its place. Example: you have some shoulder pain, so you adjust your armrest and try to keep better posture, but the unfamiliar posture makes your back ache. Sometimes it can take awhile to work out all the discomforts that you might be experiencing to get to a place where you feel comfortable and minimize stress to your body.
After being evaluated by our ergonomics specialist I discovered that I, in fact, do not use my mouse well. I wasn't a "picker-upper"—that is, someone who lifts the mouse up and down to make room for sliding it around. I didn't use the wrist pad, so I was OK there. I had the mouse located at a good angle for my body. But what I was doing wrong was using a lot of unnecessary wrist movement to move my mouse. Rather than using my whole arm to move the mouse, I would just flick my wrist this way and that. Well it probably took awhile for it to become a problem, but now I'm paying attention!
Here's a list of some of the guidelines that you should keep in mind. While most of these guidelines are considered "ergonomically correct," you shouldn't necessarily stick with any that cause, or don't correct, your problems. You need to listen to your body and do what feels right.
- Head centered over shoulders—not bent forward or to the side
- Computer monitor centered to the head Monitor distance/height at correct length (see below)
- Shoulders relaxed
- If you wear glasses, make sure they're clean
- Look away from your monitor about every 20 minutes and focus on something at least 20 feet away
- Don't forget to blink
- Keep monitor 18-26 inches away from editor (arm's-length)
- Make sure your eyes line up with a spot within 2-3 inches of the top of the monitor
- Keep monitor free from glare from windows and lights
- Keep hands and wrists straight and relaxed
- Don't bend or put pressure on wrists
- Work with forearms should be out at a 90-degree angle to the upper arms
- Do not use armrests while typing
- Don't put pressure on the underside of wrist, as with wrist rests
- Keep mouse as close to you as possible; next to the keyboard is best
- Keep wrist straight and relaxed
- Use your whole arm while moving the mouse
- Sit upright with your back firmly against the backrest
- Try to keep a natural "S" curve to your back
Arranging Your Desk Space
You should try to keep your workspace as free from clutter as possible. Try to keep your most-used items within arm's reach. Your work surface should be big enough to arrange your documents on.
While still avoiding clutter, you can improve your workspace by populating it with ergonomically sound gear. As with anything, proceed with caution and with the caveat in mind that just because it purports to be ergonomically advantageous doesn't mean it is. There is a whole industry out there creating products and services that claim to be ergonomic or help with ergonomics. While I haven't had the opportunity to test all these devices, I will give you some feedback on the ones I've used.
One of the single biggest complaints is wrist pain. This was also the reason I began trying make my workstation more ergonomically sound.
There is actually a large selection of mouse devices designed to address these issues. There are mice that claim to fit your hand more ergonomically; there are trackballs in all different shapes and sizes that claim to reduce wrist stress; there are finger trackball mice that reduce palm stress; and you'll also find foot pedals that control mouse movement. The list goes on.
As editors and graphics people, we'll find that a lot of the ergonomic products offered usually are not compatible with our work environments. They might be incompatible with a piece of software that we need to use, or restrict movement to the extent that it isn't fluid enough for our work, or for some other reason that prohibits us from even including it as an option. With this in mind, I ended up eliminating a lot of potential devices as a solution for my wrist pain.
Pen and Tablet
In seeking a solution to my wrist issues, I narrowed my search down pretty quickly to a Wacom tablet. It's one of the few mouse alternatives on the market that have the potential of both reducing wrist strain and being a more efficient device to use.
I started with the Wacom Graphire tablet in the 8"x5" model. I was very surprised at how easy it is to make the transition from mouse to tablet. Like a lot of people, I bounce around on my computer from editing and graphics to email, Web browsing, word processing, and other applications, and I thought for sure that there was going to be a point at which the pen and tablet was not going to work with what I was trying to do. I found the exact opposite to be true. The very first day I realized how much faster I could move around by using the pen and tablet. By the end of the day I was hooked.
Using the pen and tablet is very straightforward. The surface of the tablet corresponds with the space of your computer screen. When you need to go up to the top of the menu bar in your computer, you move the pen to the top of the tablet. This eliminates the need to pick up or adjust your mouse, because the whole computer surface is always available. No more of the mouse running off the corner of your desk.
As for the ergonomics-specific advantages of this device, now when I'm moving my pen around, I'm moving my whole arm, not just my wrist. Since we are brought up to use our whole arm when we write, it's a very natural movement. This reduces a lot of stress to the hand, wrist, and arm. It doesn't take a lot of energy to hold onto the pen, so your hand is not as fatigued as it would be by using a mouse. Wacom also includes a mouse for those few times where you absolutely need to use it.
Someone also came up with the idea of using a pen in your right hand (for lefthanders, switch hands), and working the mouse with your left hand for applications that require a mouse. I've been trying this off and on and was surprised to find that I could use my left hand for the mouse without a lot of thinking. This also can be a big wrist-stress reliever.
After using the Graphire tablet I wanted my own, but I ordered the Wacom Intous3 instead. I was hoping get some use out of the programmable button in the side of the tablet. The first thing I noticed in comparing the two tablets is that the Intous3 takes up a lot more desk space, which can be a problem for a lot of editors. But the Intous tablet also has a softer feel to it. The softer feel of the tablet helps me to get even better control over the pen.
Another mouse alternative that can be helpful in reducing wrist/hand problems is the joystick mouse from 3M. It's optical on the bottom, just like your mouse, but with a joystick top. The joystick profile helps to create a total arm movement as opposed to just your wrist. It comes with several programmable buttons on the stick and a base to help make using it more efficient. If nothing else, you'll feel like you're flying a jet fighter!
As I stated, there are lots of options, and a trackball is one that works for some people. I saw a librarian using a remote trackpad for all her data entry and she said that it did wonders for helping her hand and wrist problems. So you never can tell what might work for someone.
Trying to find a good chair is kind of like trying to pick out the right Christmas tree. Most of them look good in the lot, but you need to have it home for a while before you know if it really works for you.
There are some things to keep in mind when looking for the right chair. First, it should be adjustable in height and possibly have an adjustable armrest as well. Second, the back of the chair should come in contact with the lower back and should create a natural "S" curve to your back. The lumbar support should be adjustable.
I don't have a lot of good feedback about keyboards, mostly because we have become accustomed to using the nicely labeled and color-coded keyboards in our studio, and since they are not making these in ergonomic styles, I'm sticking with what I have.
That said, I believe I would personally benefit from the form function of a split keyboard because it creates less strain on one's arms.
Finally, a Disclaimer
None of the information here should be construed or used as medical advice. If you are experiencing any kind of pain, please consult with a medical professional. These are general guidelines for making ergonomic adjustments to your workspace that may or may not alleviate any physical difficulties you're experiencing in the edit bay.
I'm lucky to work at a place that has not only an ergonomics expert to consult with but also demos of a lot of the products I've written about here. If you can, you should try out some of these devices before you invest in any of them. You might find out that some of the products will work for you and others won't.
Most office supply stores do have demo units that you can try before you buy. If a demo is not an option, then good feedback from someone you trust is always the next best thing.
We all love what we do and deserve to do it without pain. Making your workspace and work habits ergonomically sound is one way to keep your editing experience relatively pain-free.