Friday, April 13, 2012

Writer’s Challenge- Ergonomic Laptop Space on the Road

As a writer, I feel like I am constantly ‘on’ when it comes to work. It doesn’t matter where I am, or what I am doing, it feels like I am working, at least to some degree. If I am not sitting down researching or writing, then it seems as though thoughts of future projects, ideas of what to write on, or where to research  are constantly flowing through my mind.

Image: Sam Greenhalg

I’m not sure if that is because I can’t ‘shut it off’, or that I find many things in life interesting. For example, someone I know fell and broke his leg a couple weeks ago. On the surface, not much of a story there. Yet, I find myself thinking lately that I want to write about him one day, because he is one of the most interesting and coolest people I have ever met.

I guess why I am discussing this, is because I often take my laptop with me, no matter where I go. I also know the importance of working in a healthy environment and need to take precautions on protecting my body so that the writing and freelancing world doesn’t claim another victim any time soon.

Realizing that it’s probably a common trait that writers have, both working around the clock, and wanting to stay healthy, I have found some solutions for working through my travels and keeping it healthy. Since ergonomics are hard to ‘pack’, read on for some helpful advice on how to create your own.

Finding the Right Spot to Sit

Unfortunately, my ergonomic chair is difficult to pack and carry. So, when I get to where I am going, I try to pick out a chair that not only will be supportive, but out of the way of everyone else. Whether you are in a hotel, or staying with someone you know, you should be able to find a chair that will work temporarily.

However, chances are that it won’t be ergonomically designed, unless you are staying in a place that caters to business travelers, or can borrow the home office of where you are staying.

So, a way to convert a chair to one that is supportive and better for lower back pain relief is to bring a portable cushion designed for lumbar support, or roll a towel and place it in the back of the chair. A pillow of rolled sweatshirt would also work.

Sit back completely in the chair, with the lumbar resting in the lower curve of your back. Also make sure that your feet are resting comfortably on the floor. If you can’t naturally do this, place a stack of books or a box on the floor to rest your feet on.

External Keyboards

Dr. Tamara James of Duke Occupational and Environmental Safety’s Ergonomics Division says that using a laptop for extended periods of time can be detrimental to our bodies, with damage that can be difficult to correct, if correctable at all. She recommends using external devices such as a monitor and keyboard, and hook up the laptop to a docking system.

Now when traveling, this could be cumbersome to pack and carry. So, another option would be to take a portable external keyboard that you can properly place for comfort. Unfortunately, laptops are not designed for comfort with the angles that they force us to work, especially our wrists.

Portable keyboards to consider are:

  • Mini
  • Wireless
  • Split

You can comfortably rest the keyboard in your lap, while you place the monitor on a level for viewing comfort.

Another Option for the Wrist

If you don’t want to use an external keyboard, you could protect your wrists by placing the laptop directly in your lap. This will keep your wrists at a comfortable angle, rather than bending them when it’s placed at a higher level.

A word of caution on this though, is that your monitor will not be at an ergonomic height, and will most likely cause stress on your neck from having to bend your head down to look into the monitor. This is the reason why Dr. James recommends using external components when possible. If this is just short time, it won’t be as big of a concern as it would be if it was your normal work environment.

Which leads us to…

Adjusting Your Screen

Adjust the angle of your screen to maximize your comfort. Looking down at the computer can strain your neck when doing it for long periods of time. Take short little breaks to look up and relax your muscles by rolling your shoulders and neck…slightly.

I have even sat in the chair with a binder in my lap, or use something to prop the laptop on an angle so the keyboard angles downward for comfort on the wrist. I then push the monitor screen backwards gently so that it’s at a good angle for my neck. In other words, if it were sitting squarely on a level table, the screen would be angling backwards and not looking natural at all.

These tips above are for temporary setups for when you travel, or are not at your main work station. Just because it’s not long term doesn’t mean that you can’t…or shouldn’t work in comfort.


Jason Monroe is a freelance writer, writing a series of articles on ergonomics in the workplace with the assistance of a Columbia Chiropractic office.

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