Do the math: the average lifetime cost of carpal tunnel syndrome is about $30,000 for each injured worker, including medical bills and lost work time. New keyboard technologies designed to cut typing stress can be had for less than $1,000

John Williams feared he was having a heart attack. Typing in his office about nine years ago, he felt a pain shoot from his fingertips up his left arm and into his chest. While it wasn’t heart trouble, the news wasn’t good for a writer who types as much as eight hours a day.

“I went to the family doctor that day and he said he was sure I had carpal tunnel syndrome. He told me at the time to begin looking for alternative ways to do typing,” says Williams, 58, a Virginia-based writer.

Williams’ story is a familiar one to many computer users, who may notice a pain in their hands as they click on a mouse, or in their fingers as they type. Those are often symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome, which is caused by the compression of a nerve in the wrist. For some, a small adjustment, such as putting a keyboard on a tray, may solve the problem. Others may need to find an alternative to the ubiquitous computer keyboard.

The problem is that typing on a standard keyboard forces the hands and wrists into an unnatural, tense position which can lead to repetitive stress injuries. While the initial costs in pre-empting injuries are high, businesses may find that an investment in ergonomically designed keyboards can bring savings on workers’ comp costs.

“You usually get the injury because the job that you’re doing is the same thing over and over again. So you have to do something else,” says Diane Randall, director of risk management at Risk Transfer Holdings, a consulting firm serving the staffing and employment industries. “They (employees) have downtime and you’re looking at a lost-time claim when you’re paying benefits while they’re out.”

Among the hardest hit by injuries caused by repetitive typing are secretaries, data entry clerks, bookkeepers, and insurance adjusters and examiners, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

OSHA data shows that carpal tunnel injuries lead to among the highest number of days away from work. The average lifetime cost of carpal tunnel syndrome is about $30,000 for each injured worker, including medical bills and lost work time, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

For businesses seeking to bring injured employees back to work sooner or to find solutions for workers experiencing pain, there are a number of alternative keyboard designs.

The most common designs are split keyboards that divide the keys into in a V-pattern. This allows users to keep their wrists in a straighter, more natural position. A number of companies offer such keyboards, including Microsoft Corp., whose Natural Keyboard Elite is priced under $35, and Darwin Keyboards’ SmartBoard at $89.95.

The Goldtouch Adjustable Ergonomic Keyboard takes that concept a step farther. The keyboard from Goldtouch Technologies Inc. is split in two with a connection at the top. The keyboard, priced at $159, not only allows users to adjust the horizontal split between the two keypads, it also can be adjusted vertically, or tented, to tilt outward. Such tented keyboards reduce the rotation of the forearm.

Split keyboards, however, may require users to hold their elbows away from their sides, which can increase tension in the neck and shoulders, says Dan F. Spencer, vice president of SafeType Inc., whose keyboard stands the regular technology on end. The SafeType keyboard, priced at $295, has two outward-facing vertical keypads that split the standard “qwerty” keyboard into two parts. The design requires a typist to hold his or her hands in front with the palms facing in. That eliminates three positions that can lead to trouble: turning the palms downward, twisting the wrist outward and flexing the hands upward.

“We didn’t start with a flat keyboard and say ‘How can I modify this?’ We started by asking ‘What’s the natural position for human hands?’ “Spencer says. “(The SafeType) doesn’t just shift the problem from one part of the body to another, but rather puts the user in a completely orthopedically neutral state so the tension doesn’t exist.”

Since the design requires users to hold their arms in front of them, it was initially thought that forearm supports would be required, but that proved unnecessary, Spencer says. “The only muscle used for that (position) is one of the strongest ones in the body, the biceps,” Spencer says.

Since the keys are not in view, the SafeType keyboard is only for touch typists, who are able to learn to use it quickly. “Their fingers already know where to go,” Spencer says.

Another design, called the DataHand, priced at $995, replaces the standard keyboard with two contoured handrests with keys clustered around the fingertips. The device from DataHand Systems Inc. eliminates muscle movements in the wrist, arm, shoulder and neck that may cause trouble. Only the fingertips move, and then only slightly. The design also halves the amount of force needed to strike the keys.

For those who want to eliminate the whole notion of typing, Keybowl’s orbiTouch Keyless Keyboard, priced at $695, doesn’t use any keys. Instead, users rest their hands on two domes that act as a mouse and input characters as they are moved into specific positions. The design eliminates finger motion and reduces wrist motion by 82 percent, the vendor claims.

“The keying activity required to generate characters and numbers causes repetitive dynamic movement of the fingers and the wrist, and that has been shown to he one of the major contributors to repetitive stress injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome,” says Walt Wilson, vice president of Keybowl Inc.

“It’s a way back to work for people who can’t use that regular keyboard or mouse,” Wilson says. “We’re targeting this toward the vast population of individuals who find that keyboard-and-mouse combination to be an obstacle instead of a tool.”

Because the orbiTouch doesn’t use keys, it makes it easier for workers to shift back to regular keyboards, Wilson says. “With the orbiTouch all of the learning occurs in the muscles of the upper arms and the shoulders, so your fingers never learn anything new, and you can use a regular keyboard without it feeling strange,” says Wilson.

The orbiTouch does require a commitment to training. It takes several hours to learn the basics, and after 10 or 15 hours of practice, users can type up to 40 words a minute, which is in line with the average typing speed for most people, Wilson says.

“It’s got a learning curve,” says Matthew Mahoney, Florida-based director of partner programs at San Diego-based Solimar Systems Inc., a printing software company. Mahoney, whose job requires him to write reports and handle a high volume of email, began using the orbiTouch recently after trying alternatives. “You’ll never be as fast as you were on a regular keyboard.”

Williams, the writer who had tried a number of alternative keyboards as well as voice recognition software, says he now writes without pain after 16 months of using the orbiTouch. “Once I began to use it in my office, I had less and less pain,” says Williams.

For many people, alternative keyboards can make the difference when it comes to working in the computer age. “For someone like me who doesn’t have an alternative, I’m thinking I have to find another career if I can’t do this,” says Mahoney.

“If you’re in an office, you’re using a computer,” Wilson says. “If you can’t use that keyboard-and-mouse combination, you are shut out.”

And for many businesses and their insurers, an alternative keyboard can mean the difference between paying $1,000 now, or the equivalent of $30,000 over the life of a worker suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Axon Group

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning

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