Ergonomic Keyboard Design: Result of the Information Revolution!

Published: 18th August 2009
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Thanks to the Information Revolution of the 1990s, computers have become staple fixtures at offices and homes. And since so much time is spent tapping on keyboards and staring at monitors, it's essential to create a safe and comfortable computer set-up.

Ergonomics is the applied science of equipment design that's intended to maximize productivity by reducing operator fatigue and discomfort. Computer-related ergonomic risk factors include awkward postures, static positions and highly repetitive tasks. A poorly configured workspace can result in chronic musculoskeletal discomfort and may even lead to Cumulative Trauma Disorders, scar tissue formation and adaptive tissue shortening. Methods of reducing these risk factors involve maintaining neutral joint postures, alternating tasks, implementing stretch breaks and using adjustable equipment.

Numerous components affect the efficiency of a computer workstation, such as the keyboard, mouse or trackball, monitor, work surface, chair, foot support and organizational arrangement. While all these elements must be evaluated to improve workstation postures, the keyboard is a crucial part of the equation.

Since a keyboard is a primary component of the computer set up, it's important to have a properly designed device to prevent injuries to the arms, wrists and hands. Ergonomic keyboard design promotes neutral postures and reduces strain on working joints, muscles and tendons.

The following guidelines can help ergonomic specialists select the appropriate keyboard for workers.

• Compatibility. Verify that the keyboard is compatible with existing computer hardware, software and alternate input devices, such as the mouse, pen tablet or trackball.

• Spatial considerations. Evaluate a workstation to ensure that the keyboard fits into its space properly. For efficiency and ergonomic safety, a keyboard should be centered beneath the monitor. Note the size, posture and work habits of the user in order to position the keyboard at the appropriate height.

• Parts and operation. A keyboard must meet user needs. Make sure all necessary components are present on the keyboard before selecting a model. For example, not every alternative keyboard contains number pads. In addition, individual keys should be easy to depress, since extra effort may cause strain.

• Compare and contrast. Test different models to compare performance and productivity. If possible, a worker should try the keyboard on a trial basis, since most ergonomic problems build over time.

• Education. Ergonomic evaluators should be experienced and knowledgeable in order to make suitable recommendations. Practitioners should also educate users on proper keyboard use and maintenance. Follow up with the comprehensive ergonomic program and reassess the workstation to ensure worker safety and comfort. This ergonomic program should include: work injury screening, ergonomic job assessments for high risk job tasks, ergonomic equipment recommendations, follow up and review of program effectiveness.

Management commitment is critical to a successful ergonomic program. When using a keyboard to type, good posture involves keeping the shoulders, wrists and elbows in neutral positions. Ideally, the arms should hang loosely at the sides, with the shoulders extended 0 to 15 degrees. The elbows should fall at mid-range, level or slightly higher than the keyboard and bent 80 to 90 degrees. The wrists should remain straight and neutral. And the hands and fingers should be relaxed, with the fingers curved or flexed slightly.

Improper keyboard use or awkward positions can result in incorrect postures. Ergonomic specialists need to make sure workers avoid the following positions: excessive shoulder flexion or abduction; elbows flexed or extended beyond 80 to 90 degrees; and wrists that are flexed, extended or ulnar deviated.

As remote office environments grow, so does the popularity of laptop computers. While laptops provide lightweight, portable computer access, they also have their drawbacks--namely, bad ergonomics. Since the keyboard is concentrated on a single flat plane, it eliminates the ability to separate, tilt, tent or replace the position of individual keys and keypads. And there's virtually no adjustability to improve shoulder, elbow, wrist or hand positioning.

However, clinicians can encourage laptop users to follow several guidelines to reduce musculoskeletal strain and fatigue. Despite the name, a laptop shouldn't be used on your lap. As with personal computers, correct ergonomic set-up is essential to avoid injury. Arrange the laptop to maximize neutral positions of the shoulders, elbows, wrists and hands.

When possible, workers should use a regular keyboard and plug-in mouse, and take advantage of docking stations, food trays or pillows to promote neutral postures. The best sitting option is a stationary chair without arm rests, which allows users to adjust arm positioning.

Workers should avoid pounding the keys, especially if the key touch is light and the keypad is shallow. Encourage workers to use larger joints, such as the hand and arm, to move from key to key, as opposed to stretching fingers and wrists. And to avoid compression, workers should only use the wrist rest to rest, and not while typing.

To maintain a neutral neck position, teach workers to avoid looking down long stretches, tuck the chin in and keep the head balanced over the shoulders. Frequent stretch breaks also minimize strain from awkward postures and static positions.

A keyboard is only one piece of the ergonomic puzzle. In order to effectively reduce musculoskeletal discomfort and injuries that result from improper computer set-ups, it's essential to analyze and adjust all components. Keyboards aren't a one-size-fits-all piece of computer equipment, which makes an individual assessment a mandatory part of a comprehensive ergonomic workstation evaluation.

Alternative Keyboard Designs Lend a Hand

Alternative keyboards and features can help correct poor hand, wrist and finger positioning to reduce strain on joints, muscles and tendons. Designs include:

• Split keyboards. Split keyboards separate the keypads by increasing the distance between the right and left sides or by tilting keyboard pads away from each other. The design keeps the wrists straight.

• Tented keyboards. A tented design divides a keyboard's right and left sides and tilts them up like a tent. This position reduces forearm pronation.

• Built-in wrist rests. This feature provides additional support to the wrists and forearms, but workers must be careful to avoid excessive contact pressure on peripheral nerves.

• Sloped keyboards. Traditional keyboard designs use a positive slope, which places the back of the keyboard higher than the front. This often causes unnecessary wrist extension, which increases pressure in the carpal tunnel area and strains working tendons. On the other hand, a negative or neutral slope promotes a more inactive wrist position, since the plane of the keyboard is level or slightly higher in front.

• Key position. Classified as straight, concave or curved, key positions allow the fingers to work in a neutral, relaxed position.

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