The pain of going mobile: risk managers are encouraged to offer their work force ergonomic training, and to use caution in selecting tools for mobile employees if they want to increase worker productivity

Joshua Clifton

Mobile employees are constantly on the go. Many rely on laptop computers as their primary tools to conduct business, whether it’s reporting a claim, assessing storm damage or recalculating an insurance premium.

These devices are small, compact and offer the necessary flexibility employees need. And they are getting smaller still. But they can also present a variety of musculoskeletal hazards.

Experts say the problem lies in the design of laptops, which were never intended as a primary computer. According to Cornell University’s Human Factors and Ergonomics Program, the laptop design violates a basic ergonomic requirement for a computer in that the keyboard and screen are not separated. When the screen is at a comfortable height, the keyboard likely isn’t, and vice versa.

Although these fixed designs were eliminated from desktop computers many years ago, they remain problematic for laptop users. Working on a laptop–in an office, hotel or airport–for long periods of time will result in neck, back, shoulder and wrist pain.

With consumers and workers also demanding smaller, more compact laptops, the problem is bound to worsen. Smaller keyboards contribute to more stressful postures. These awkward wrist positions can create contact stress to the tendon sheath and tendons that must move within the wrist during repetitive keying.

And just in ease you missed it, have you heard of the newest cumulative trauma disorder: “Blackberry thumb.” That’s the beating your muscles and tendons in the thumb take from spinning the wheel of your Blackberry devices, according to Connie Guy, former global risk manager for Graphic Packaging International Inc., and Wayne Maynard, director of ergonomics and tribology with the Liberty Mutual Loss Prevention Group in Hopkinton. Mass.

Tendonitis claims, incidentally, don’t come cheap, while the stresses of worker mobility will only increase.

People appear to be working in locales far beyond the office already, and some people are even working while on vacation.

In the Telework Trendlines 2006 survey, issued by the nonprofit association WorldatWork based on data collected by the Dieringer Research Group, a total of 24.6 million people said they conducted their work at a customer’s or client’s place of business. In addition, the survey found a total of 24 million people conduct business in cars, and 20.2 million people conduct work in restaurants.

“In 2005, people identified as ’employed teleworkers’ were 4.1 times as likely to say that they conducted work while on vacation as all Americans in general,” the authors of the survey wrote.


Laptops and PDAs are here to stay. So, before selecting a laptop, work force managers must determine how employees will be using the device. Will their employees turn into occasional users who rely primarily on a desktop computer, but use a laptop for brief periods throughout the day? Or will workers be full-time users?

For an occasional user, ergonomists from Cornell say that it is better off sacrificing neck posture, rather than wrist posture. To do so, these users should find an adjustable chair that is comfortable, position the device on their lap or table to achieve the most neutral wrist posture possible and angle the screen that results in the least amount of neck deviation.

For full-time laptop users, the process should be similar to setting up a typical ergonomic workstation. Ergonomists from Cornell and the University of California-Los Angeles’ ergonomics division recommend employers use the following strategies for setting up a laptop workstation:

* Position the laptop correctly. For a full-time laptop user, it is important to position the device on a desk/work surface directly in front of him so that he can see the screen without bending his neck. This may require purchasing a separate keyboard and using the laptop as a monitor. To do this, elevate the laptop off the desk surface by using a stable support device, such as a computer monitor pedestal. For a low-cost solution, use reams of paper or a phonebook to prop up the computer.

Separating the keyboard and monitor will eliminate many of awkward postures that result in musculoskeletal injuries. If possible, use a separate mouse and position the keyboard on a negative-tilt tray to ensure a neutral wrist posture.

* Consider visual needs. Select a laptop with a large screen. Because laptop screens are typically smaller, it might be necessary to increase the font size for viewing. Position the top of the screen two to three inches below seated eye level and tilt the screen upward for easier viewing. Adjust the position of the screen to avoid glare from windows and overhead lights. Use laptop document holders or clipboards to prop up reference documents at an angle.

* Select an adjustable chair. Selecting a proper chair when working on a laptop is very important. Experts from Cornell recommend buying a chair with ergonomic features. A good chair provides necessary support to the back, legs, buttocks and arms, while reducing exposures to awkward postures, contact stress and forceful exertions. Increased adjustability ensures a better fit for the user, provides adequate support in a variety of sitting postures and allows variability of sitting positions throughout the workday.

Studies show that the best seated posture is a reclined position of 100 to 110 degrees–not the upright 90-degree posture that is often portrayed.

In the recommended posture, there are significant decreases in postural muscle activity and in intervertebral disc pressure on the lumbar spine. Erect sitting is not relaxed, sustainable sitting–reclined sitting is.


Employees who use laptops when traveling from office to office often work in environments with little or no adjustability.

Create docking stations with an external keyboard or monitor if the individual is frequently working between two offices.

To make these workplaces more comfortable and reduce MSD risks, employers should:

* Provide ergonomics training that reinforces good work habits. According to experts from UCLA, employers should teach traveling employees basic ways to relieve stress that builds up from working long hours in awkward, static postures.

Encourage employees to follow the 20/20/20 rule–take a 20 second break every 20 minutes and look 20 feet away to rest your hands and eyes.

Employees should take time to stretch during these breaks. For example, an employee can spread his fingers of both hands apart while keeping his wrists straight. Hold for three seconds and complete five times. This will relieve tension in the hands and wrists.

In addition, an employee can massage his fingers, wrists and forearms. He can lean forward and squeeze his shoulder blades together by bringing his elbows behind his back. Or, turn his head and look over both shoulders to stretch his neck.

* Keep it light. If the employee will be frequently transporting his laptop, make sure he considers the weight of the system. This includes not only the weight of the laptop, but the required accessories such as a power supply, spare battery, external disk drive and CDs.

Many lightweight portables can become as heavy as regular laptops when you add the weight of all of the components together. Try to reduce the weight of unnecessary accessories, such as extra batteries. However, make sure to bring an external mouse, if possible.

If the laptop and its components weigh more than 10 pounds, then the employee should consider using a wheeled carry-on bag. For all other laptops, he should select a case or backpack with wide, padded shoulder straps.

* Advise caution when working in airplanes. Many employees will be tempted to work on airplanes to get some work completed while they are commuting.

For these employees, encourage them to select bulkhead or emergency-row exit seats, if possible. They will benefit from the extra leg room and monitor distance. Lower the window screen and adjust the overhead light to reduce glare.

Whenever possible, encourage the employee to remove the seat armrest and place pillows under his arms for support.

If that is not possible, elevate the laptop on a pillow on the lap. Keep the laptop at the same level as the armrest and use the armrests for arm support.

JOSHUA CLIFTON is a Chicago-based editor and writer. He can be reached at This piece was originally published in January by CTD News, a newsletter covering ergonomic and repetitive stress issues.

At Work Every

Locations where work was

conducted during the past month *

Location 2006

Customer or client’s

place of business 24.6

In the car 24.0

Cafe or restaurant 20.2

Hotel or motel 17.8

Park or other

outdoor location 11.5

On airplane, train

or subway 10.6

Airport, train depot

or subway platform 9.1

* Millions of U.S. adults

Source: WorldatWork 2006 Telework Trendlines

commissioned by The Dieringer Research Group.

February 2007

COPYRIGHT 2007 Axon Group

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning

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