5 Risky Ergonomic Practices by Programmers (& Heavy Computer Users Too!) – Part 1

As a professional focusing on human-computer interaction, I am used to sitting in front of a computer screen for hours on end coding away. And I do this comfortably and pain free. It hasn’t been easy; in fact its been down right hard! Although I most certainly know better, once you settle in and embrace the trance brought on by the high cognitive load associated with what I call ‘creative computing’, everything outside the virtual world seems to disappear. And that includes any concept of proper ergonomics. That is until you are in pain!

In this 5 part series I’m going to centre out programmers. However, my opinions can be related to anyone that could consider them self a heavy computer user, especially those whose primary task requires creative thinking and focused attention. As I’ve worked in the health care/medical research setting for most of my professional career, grant and ethics writers particularly come to mind.

The 5 habits I’m going to touch on are:
1. Monitor Position
2. Screen Set-up
3. The Lazy Posture
4. All the Wrong Equipment in All the Wrong Places
5. Get Up and Take a Break!

So why programmers? Its simple; writing code is cognitively demanding! Without getting into cognitive psychology (cognitive ergonomics), software and web programming requires tremendous visual attention, is very “active” (I’ll get to this in part 4), can be very isolating, stressful, and is associated with prolonged sitting.

monitor position banner

In our previous post, How to FIX back pain, neutral body posture is the key to good ergonomics. A monitor that is positioned incorrectly can lead to a whole lot of hurt down the road! Here are some of the set-ups I see way too often with my programming colleagues:

The Huge Monitor
Although its nice to have more desktop real estate, by introducing a huge monitor you’ve just added a lot more to look at. Just this week I came across someone working away while sitting less than an arms length from a 32″ monitor! This guy has to physically move his head from left to right to look across the screen which to me is just insane! Obviously this person’s neck will be extremely fatigued after sitting in front of this monitor for extended periods, and this repetitive motion will eventually lead to pain and discomfort. This isn’t always an easy problem to fix, but most commonly the person should be sitting as far away (or conversely pushing the monitor further back on the desk) as needed until the person no longer needs to physically turn their head to view both sides of the computer screen (ha!). But like I said, this can be challenging to accomplish as it may mean because desk real estate can be a luxury that many do not have! And once the monitor is pushed back, font sizes may need to be increased so as to prevent eye strain or leaning forward postures.

Dual Monitors
A computer set up with 2 or more monitors can really make multi-tasking easier, especially when developing software or building websites. The position of the monitor in front of the user is dependent on how much each is used. However when coming across someone using 2 monitors, I seldom see people positioning one monitor directly in front of the user, with the secondary monitor off to the right or left. If the user seems to be using the monitors equally, then positioning them both in front of the user would make sense. But often, I will watch a developer with his/her head turned to the side, typing away for long periods, until finally turning their head in the other direction to briefly test what they have been working on. And then repeat.

The High Monitor
As I spend a lot of time in hospitals, I see a lot of office workstations that are setup very poorly. And development labs I frequent (especially those in the hospital) are no exception. The most common poor monitor habit that I see is a person looking at a monitor that is much too high.  A high monitor causes neck extension, which can lead to neck, upper back pain and even headaches overtime. And there is usually an easy fix – lower the monitor so the top of the screen is at, or even slightly lower than, your natural eye height. The bottom of the screen should be tilted slightly towards you at about a 15 degree angle.

The Laptop
Many of my colleagues have embraced the wave of this new trend called “working from home.” In fact, I try to avoid the commute to the office at least once a week if I can! A really convenient and popular workstation set up includes connecting a laptop with one or more external monitor as well as external keyboard and mouse. I’m all for this! What makes me cringe, however, is when I see someone using their laptop as a secondary monitor, and the laptop is sitting on the desktop causing the person to look downward to see the screen. This causes neck extension which can lead to a whole bunch of problems including tension and soreness in the upper back and neck and headache. And once again, the simple solution is to position the laptop just like you would a monitor. The top of the laptop screen should be just below your natural eye height, and the bottom of the screen should be tilted slightly towards you at about a 15 degree angle.

So these are just 4 bad habits that I frequently observe amongst my programming friends and colleagues. And like I said before, these habits are shared by computer users as a whole so if you find that you are doing any of the above, you need to break the habit! If you need more help, why not get an E-Consult?

Next Thursday: Screen Set-up

Joe has had a diverse career across many industries which has provided him with invaluable training and experience. Joe's specialization focuses on the human factors of human-computer interaction, with a particular focus on usability. He has conducted numerous academic and internal scientific research projects, has a Master of Science Degree from the University of Victoria and is an active software/web developer. Fun fact about Joe is that he has had four holes in one (twice on the same hole) and a double eagle while playing golf.

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