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Take aches and pains out of your workplace

Karen Jacobs, a specialist in ergonomics, takes measurements of a workstation for Joan Gentile, a clinical education assistant. Jacobs seeks to make the workplace less taxing on the workers' bodies. Karen Jacobs, a specialist in ergonomics, takes measurements of a workstation for Joan Gentile, a clinical education assistant. Jacobs seeks to make the workplace less taxing on the workers' bodies. (ESSDRAS M SUAREZ/GLOBE STAFF)

Occupational therapist Karen Jacobs stumbled into the study of ergonomics quite by accident. She walked into her children's computer classroom in middle school and was horrified. "Everything was a mismatch," she remembers about the chairs, tables, and computers. "I thought, 'Oh my gosh, they are predisposing themselves to discomfort.' "

There were a range of sixth-graders, some as tall as 6 feet and others only 4 feet, all trying to work on the same size terminals, some hunched over and others stretched to their limit. Jacobs volunteered to reconfigure the workstations. "I didn't want to see the next generation have the same aches and pains that we see today with adults," she said.

This initial effort, now more than 10 years ago, eventually led her to become a board certified professional ergonomist through the nonprofit, independent group of the same name (BCPE). She is now a professor in the Department of Occupational Therapy and Rehabilitation Counseling at Boston University.

Ergonomics - the difference between a rock-hard chair that hurts your back and a comfy seat with lots of support - is especially important for the millions who sit in front of a computer all day.

The Occupational Health and Safety Administration says 1.8 million workers suffer from musculoskeletal disorders such as carpal tunnel syndrome and low back pain due to office discomforts. This has led to a booming ergonomics marketplace, with everything from rubber-coated pens to bendable wrist rests.

Last year, Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas hosted the National Ergonomics Conference and Exposition, an unlikely showplace for keynote speakers from companies such as Liberty Mutual and Microsoft, who shared their "ergonomic success stories."

Beware of all the ergonomic hype, though, said Eugene Fram, professor of marketing at Rochester Institute of Technology. "One should not buy something simply because it is labeled as ergonomically designed," Fram said. "Usually this type of equipment is very costly, and some salespeople will try to pass themselves off as ergonomic experts."

Standard office equipment is designed for users who are 6 feet tall and 175 pounds or a similar dimension, said Justin Keller, physical therapy manager for Spine Team Texas, a regional back and neck treatment center. In contrast, he said, ergonomically friendly equipment is designed to be adjustable and meet the needs of all body types, including the increasing girth of many Americans.

Stick to the basics when selecting ergonomic equipment. These include chair, headset, and monitor; footrests, document stands, glare screens, and appropriate task lighting can also add to comfort and organization.

Kailas Narendran, a start-up entrepreneur who has two high-tech companies, spends hours at his Burlington, Vt., desk, but makes sure that his equipment adds to increased efficiency and productivity.

"My laptop is connected to an external monitor, since it's easier to see and there is less eye strain," Narendran said. "I use a wireless headset so my neck doesn't get strained when I talk on the phone, and I have a box under my desk that I lean my feet against."

And as all ergonomic experts advise, Narendran takes frequent breaks, standing up and stretching so he's not sitting for long periods.

The details

Speak to a professional: Consult an occupational therapist, certified ergonomist, or occupational health nurse who can assist you in determining what equipment you need.

Hands on: Always try the product before purchasing it and make sure you understand the return policy before leaving the store. Buy products from a reputable company that uses evidence-based research to back up its designs.

Take a break: Change your posture throughout the day and try to take a stretch break every 20-30 minutes. If you have a difficult time remembering to take a break, software such as Para Technologies' Stretch Break will intermittently remind you.

Neck smart: Instead of staring down at papers that are flat on your desk, use document holders on either side of the computer monitor to help keep your head upright, causing less strain. Likewise, don't cradle your phone with your neck; wireless headsets help keep your head in a neutral position.

Bright idea: Have sufficient lighting, which usually includes task lighting as well as overhead lighting. If there is glare or the room is too dark, often workers try to compensate by putting their head in an awkward posture.

Have a seat: Chairs should have different adjustments for height, tilting, reclining, and backrest angle. Armrests are a matter of preference

SOURCES: Occupational Safety and Health Administration; International Ergonomics Association

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The details

n Speak to a professional: Consult an occupational therapist, certified ergonomist, or occupational health nurse who can assist you in determining what equipment you need.

n Hands on: Always try the product before purchasing it and make sure you understand the return policy before leaving the store. Buy products from a reputable company that uses evidence-based research to back up its designs.

n Take a break: Change your posture throughout the day and try to take a stretch break every 20-30 minutes. If you have a difficult time remembering to take a break, software such as Para Technologies' Stretch Break will intermittently remind you.

n Neck smart: Instead of staring down at papers that are flat on your desk, use document holders on either side of the computer monitor to help keep your head upright, causing less strain. Likewise, don't cradle your phone with your neck; wireless headsets help keep your head in a neutral position.

n Bright idea: Have sufficient lighting, which usually includes task lighting as well as overhead lighting. If there is glare or the room is too dark, often workers try to compensate by putting their head in an awkward posture.

n Have a seat: Chairs should have different adjustments for height, tilting, reclining, and backrest angle. Armrests are a matter of preference.

SOURCES: Occupational Safety and Health Administration; International Ergonomics Association

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