A Safety and Health Guide for Computer Users

Jobs that involve working with computers are not typically associated with workplace injuries, due to the lack of exposure to hazardous chemicals, strenuous exertion, or moving parts. There are, however, a number of health and safety risks that come with the prolonged use of computers. The potential injuries inflicted by working with computers are subtle and manifest over a long period of time. While the risk of electric shock and death by electrocution is real, the vast majority of computer-related health issues result in disability and lost productivity. These health threats include eye strain and repetitive strain injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome.

Electrical safety issues are rare with computers, but as with all electrical devices, they can result in deadly work hazards. Potentially dangerous examples include plugging in or unplugging computers or peripherals, or contact with damaged wires. Replacing computers and peripherals that have two-pronged plugs with those that have three-pronged plugs is one way to reduce the risk of electric shock. To remove a damaged plug, use a leather belt or turn off the power at the circuit breaker. Electro-static shock can also occur when one touches exposed circuitry. Before touching these areas, users should turn off the computer, unplug it, and touch another metal object to ground themselves and prevent damage to the computer hardware.

The radiation emitted by computer monitors, particularly cathode ray tube-based monitors (CRT), is a subject of considerable controversy. Its long-term effects on the human body are unknown but it has been shown to cause developmental disorders in chicken embryos. Some studies suggest the risk of cancer and abnormal pregnancies in humans. Replacing CRT monitors with liquid-crystal display (LCD) monitors is one way to significantly reduce any potential health risk associated with radiation exposure. Other ways of mitigating the risk of radiation exposure include turning off the monitor when it is not in use, and sitting 24 inches away from the monitor while working.

Another health issue is eye strain, which is called computer vision syndrome, when it involves computer screens. When a computer user starts experiencing soreness of the eyes, headaches, blurred vision, or dryness, this may be a sign of eye strain. Eye strain is a regularly occurring problem for people who spend a long time sitting in front of a computer screen. Fortunately there are several ways to alleviate eye strain reduce any associated health concerns, such as migraines. One way is to reduce the amount of glare on the screen by positioning the user and the screen so that neither is facing a window or other source of bright light. Maintaining a proper distance between the user's head and the monitor, which is between 18 and 24 inches, is also essential to prevent or alleviate eye strain. Changing the monitor's brightness and contrast settings, as well as the screen resolution, are other methods that help.

Comfort is a major concern when it comes to computer use. An uncomfortable setting can strain the entire body and also reduce productivity. The science of maximizing comfort and optimizing one's posture when sitting at a workstation is called computer ergonomics. Poor posture, combined with long periods of sitting and working at a desk, can result in unexpected injuries and even disability. Computer users should sit with their head and neck upright, and they should not need to lean forward to reach the keyboard or see the monitor. The monitor should be in a position where the person can look directly ahead at it, and where they do not have to look to the side. When sitting and relaxed, the person's upper arms should be parallel to their torso. The user's feet should be flush against the floor or a footrest. The chair should have a backrest that supports the lower back to aid in keeping the upper torso at a perpendicular angle to the floor. The thighs and knees should be at the same height, and the seat should have good padding.

Carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) is a common threat that faces people who use computers on a long-term basis. Repetitive work that involves the hands and the keyboard are suspected to be a major cause of CTS. Symptoms of CTS include numbness or pain in the wrists, fingers and thumbs, and a weakening of one's grip. Taking breaks every fifteen minutes from repetitive tasks such as typing is one way to prevent this disorder from arising. It can also be avoided by observing proper ergonomic techniques, such as keeping one's hands, forearms and wrists in line with each other while typing. Alternate keyboard designs, such as split keyboards, may also be helpful. For those who do suffer from CTS, braces can be helpful for keeping the wrists straight, thus preventing the condition from getting worse. In extreme cases, "carpal tunnel release" surgery may be deemed necessary by a doctor.

Even small changes can make a big difference when it comes to remaining safe and healthy while using the computer. While the risks associated with computer use are not high, they often have an effect on one's vision, muscles and spine. In many cases, employers are willing to make these changes for employees to reduce the risk of work related injury. Because most people use computers both at work and at home, a person may also want to make safety changes to their home computer as well.

For more information about health and safety issues involving computers, please see the following links.