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Healthy Working

Using a computer for extended periods of time carries with it certain health risks, the best-known of which is the risk of repetitive strain Injuries (RSI), more properly called Cumulative Trauma Disorder. Anyone who works at a computer for hours on end is at risk, especially if they do a lot of work with the mouse. RSI from computer use is usually first felt in the hands, particularly the thumb joints, wrists or neck.

There is also a real risk of eye strain and possibly damage to the eyes for anyone who stares at the screen for long periods, no matter what their age. You should rest your eyes by looking away from the screen and looking round the room. You should be especially careful if you experience headaches after computer use. Computer users should see an optician regularly, even if they believe that they have perfect sight. The BBC's healthy working site includes useful pages on eye problems and headaches.

Repetitive Strain Injuries are no joke. They can render you unable to work for months at a time; severe cases may require years of rest or surgery, which is not always effective. Even if you recover from an acute injury, you may be permanently weakened, and liable to further injuries. RSI can develop into a permanent disability.

We are not experts in RSI – except inasmuch as one of us has suffered from such an injury and is painfully aware of the effects and their consequences – and we advise anyone who suspects they may be suffering from RSI to consult a physiotherapist, and anyone who is setting up equipment or supervising laboratory work to find out as much as they can about ergonomics and prevention of injury. We can, however, pass on some simple advice.

Unfortunately, by the time you start to feel pain, it is too late, but if you ever do experience pain, discomfort or tingling in your hands or arms while working at your computer, stop immediately. Never carry on working if it is causing you pain – not even if you are half an hour away from a project deadline. It isn't worth being injured for the rest of your life to meet one deadline.

Instructors on courses with a practical component should make an effort to ensure that they don't cause their students to injure themselves. Most institutions will have health and safety regulations which affect computer use and these should be observed. If you are responsible for setting up equipment in labs, pay attention to the ergonomic issues – make sure, for instance, that students are not forced to make cramped movements because insufficient space has been allocated to each workstation. Don't make students sit on chairs that you wouldn't use yourself – for example, because their height can't be adjusted. And don't set projects with tight rigid deadlines or encourage a culture of working long hours at the computer.

Here are some Web pages that you may find helpful:

The following quotation may help put the problem in perspective.

By some estimates, about 27 million people have visited a medical professional for RSI of the hand and, perhaps, another 40 million have experienced symptoms but did not seek professional help. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, RSIs of all types account for 60% of all reported occupational illnesses. The estimated direct cost to businesses was over $25 billion in 1993 just in the U.S. The National Center for Health Statistics reported that 849,000 new problem visits were made to physicians in office-based practices in 1994 due to CTS and carpal tunnel release operations are the second most common work related surgical procedure in the U.S. [Source]

There is no evidence that things have improved since, and every reason to assume they have got worse.