Districts are buying laptops by the cartful but doing little to ensure that staff and students are using them ergonomically.  The design of laptops violates a basic ergonomic requirement for a computer, namely that the keyboard and screen should be separated so they can each be located in the right place.

Using a laptop forces either poor neck/head posture from the screen being too low or poor hand/wrist position from the keyboard being too high. An epidemic of computer-related health problems is brewing as a result, including headaches, eye strain, blurred vision, tingling, and numbness. Pain from repetitive strain injury (RSI) to the muscles, nerves and connective tissue of the neck, back, shoulder, elbow, wrist and hand also occur. Children under 18, whose bodies are still developing, are more susceptible to computer-related health problems and have more years ahead of them to suffer pain and damage.

Using a laptop forces either poor neck/head posture from the screen being too low or poor hand/wrist position from the keyboard being too high.

The embrace of laptops has happened so rapidly that most staff and students are using them with whatever tables and chairs are available.  Most have no access to an ergonomic laptop computer workstation with an adjustable chair, external keyboard and mouse, and height-adjustable stand to raise the laptop screen to eye level. Some classroom teachers are improvising to try and fill the gap for students with upholstered chairs, lap desks, standing desks, pillows for floor seating and more.

School furniture manufacturers offer such ergonomics solutions such as stools that change height and direction easily, chairs that rock and flex and air-filled seat cushions. Unfortunately, most districts have not investigated or purchased them. 

Ergonomics aims to optimize the interaction between people and technology. When school furniture is not adjustable, the potential for adopting awkward postures is great. For those using laptops many hours a day, the screen must be at eye level and a separate keyboard and mouse used instead of the attached keyboard and touch pad.  For more occasional users, access to a variety of different size tables and chairs and adjustable ones are essential to accommodate bodies of diverse heights, weights and proportions.

Insist the district implement an ergonomics program

Local associations should work with their UniServ field representatives to negotiate solutions that are in the control of district administrators such as providing staff training on ergonomics and providing ergonomic furniture. The local should insist that administration involve local association members and parents in bringing in furniture vendors to demonstrate their ergonomic wares and selecting appropriate furniture for staff and students. Periodic training should be provided so staff members know how to take steps within their control, such as the computer pain solutions listed in the box. 

Written documentation of problems should be submitted to make administrators officially aware. Photographs of non-ergonomic computer usage make compelling evidence to submit to administration, along with a description of what is wrong and what is needed to correct the problems. Staff should report their computer-related work injuries to administration. Otherwise the administration is not motivated to deal with the problem and there is no documentation on file should symptoms worsen.

Eileen Senn holds a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry from Duquesne University and a Master of Science in Occupational Health from Temple University. She is an industrial hygiene consultant with the New Jersey Work Environment Council, a frequent partner with NJEA on school health and safety concerns.

Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) can develop slowly

Pre-RSI – “Funny” feeling in neck, back, shoulder, elbow, wrist, or hand.

Beginning RSI– Pain or tingling during computer work. Symptoms are relatively mild and disappear during periods of rest.

Full-Blown RSI – Symptoms occur frequently and do not disappear completely during periods of rest. Weak and clumsy movements of affected parts.

Chronic Pain– Constant pain unrelieved by rest. Sleep is disturbed by pain. Symptoms are made worse by any activity. The pain, limited movement, loss of sensation, and muscle weakness can make performing any job tasks impossible.

For more information

Five Tips for Using A Laptop Computer, Alan Hedge, Cornell University

10 Best Laptop Setups

Rethinking the School Desk, Linda Perlstein, Slate

Chromebook Accessibility Features

OSHA Computer Ergonomics eTool

Computer pain solutions

Repetitive strain injuries

• Use voice control/speech recognition.

• Use ergonomic alternatives to traditional mice and keyboards.

• Use as many fingers as possible when typing.

Neck, shoulder and back pain

• Ensure an ergonomic workstation.

• Sit-stand workstations.

• Support the forearms.

• Avoid bending the head down or jutting it forward.

• Take frequent short breaks from the device.

• Ensure good posture and change positions frequently.

• Stand and do stretching exercises.

Eye pain, blurred vision and headaches

• Use sufficient but not excessive lighting.

• Use assistive technology built into Google, Apple and Windows devices.

• Enlarge and darken the cursor and pointer.

• Enlarge the font; magnify the text.

• Use text-to-speech instead of reading.

• Use special computer glasses.

• Relax the eyes on a mini-break.

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