5 Risky Ergonomic Practices by Programmers (& Heavy Computer Users Too!) – Part 2

Today we continue with part 2 of a 5 part series. Although many of my examples are relevant to programmers, anyone that considers him or herself a heavy computer user should find the same value in my suggestions. Today we discuss the set-up of your computer screen(s).

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!

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Lets not beat around the bush; there is no clear scientific evidence showing that staring at your computer for long periods causes permanent vision problems. In fact, a 2015 paper published by Dr. Karla Zadnik of Ohio State University reported the findings of a 20 year study that questions the commonly held notion that near work causes nearsightedness (myopia). This post is about the pain and discomfort that programmers and heavy computer users do experience: eyestrain, dry eyes, fatigue, blurred vision and headaches.

Last week I thought I’d do some reconnaissance. I  checked the settings of nearly a dozen of my colleagues’ monitors and found (not surprisingly) that all of the monitors were set at their factory default settings. Many of the offices had no natural light, some had large windows, some with fluorescent overhead light and others with incandescent. Each person that I spoke with had experienced at least one of the previous symptoms mentioned In the last month.

So redirecting this back to developers…

When you sit in front of artificially lit screens all the time, you have to be proactive and take care of your eyes! This study from a few years ago (you may have seen it cited in other similar articles because its a goodie!) reported that just sitting in front of a computer for a couple hours significantly increases the chances of developing symptoms. And if you’re a programmer and you haven’t experienced any of these symptoms, you’re lying to yourself!

4 Screen Set-up “To-Dos”:

1. Adjust your screen brightness and the ambient light

  • The brightness of your screen should be about the same level of the ambient light of the room. I generally set monitor brightness to well below 50% (my current primary monitor is set to 31%) but it really depends on the make and model.
  • If the ambient light source in your office is bright, change it! If your monitor is positioned so that you are looking out a bright window, use blinds or curtains to reduce the window brightness. You could also just reposition the monitor so you aren’t looking directly outside (wink).
  • Change the primary source of ambient light in your office. If your office is lit by overhead fluorescent light, consider switching the overhead lights off and moving to desk or floor lamps using incandescent or LED bulbs. This change can make it easier to reduce glare and provide you with relief. A secondary benefit is that it makes your office look more like a comfortable living room as opposed to the typical sterile office environment.
  • If after making these changes you still find you are experiencing glare from your display, try an anti-glare filter like this one from 3M.

2. Screen contrast and font size

  • Set the contrast of your screen so that you can clearly and easily see and read regular text on the screen. As you lower the brightness of your screen to reduce glare, often the contrast of the screen is inadvertently reduced, causing text to be a bit harder to read and increasing potential for eye strain. Increasing the contrast of the monitor to make sure there is a distinct difference between black text on a white background will make it far easier to see and reduce strain.
  • New monitors are shipping with better and better native resolutions. Although the picture is much more stops, higher resolutions can cause font sizes to appear smaller and smaller. If you find that your eyes are feeling tired from reading the screen, increase the standard font size on the screen. Often, increasing the size of the font provides instantaneous relief!

3. Colour Temperature

  • Two weeks ago I touched on colour temperature in my review of a program called f.lux.
  • In recent years, more and more research has focused on the negative aspect of colder blue light. Blue light has been shown to disrupt sleep, memory as well as cause damage to retinal cells in the eye.
  • If possible, reduce the colour temperature of your screen slightly so that it matches ambient light in the room. Higher colour temperatures are more of a bright white and blue, whereas lower temperatures are more yellow and red. The figure below shows that beneficial light sits in the warmer ranges (towards the right).
  • If you haven’t read my article about f.luxcheck it out. This program changes the colour temperature of your display to match the surrounding light in the room. This is especially effective at night.
The band of blue-violet light that is most harmful to retinal cells ranges between 415 and 455 nm. ~ thevisioncouncil.org
The band of blue-violet light that is most harmful to retinal cells ranges between 415 and 455 nm. ~ thevisioncouncil.org

4. Don’t be a hero! Take breaks

  • Ok this point isn’t exactly a monitor set-up, but it’s equally important!
  • Follow the 20-20-20 rule. This one is all over the internet, and for good reason. The point of it: Every 20 minutes, take 20 seconds and look at something at least 20 feet away from you. There are a number of benefits to doing this: You are moving your eyes, you are exercising you lenses, and you’re taking a break!
  • When focusing in on the next line of code, or debugging an issue that’s becoming a thorn in your side, don’t forget to blink. Blink often! When focusing in of the screen, you will blink far less often than you normally would. Blinking helps to moistens the cornea, prevents dryness and irritation and makes your eyes feel good.
  • While taking the break, why not get up and move around? Just a thought!

 

Those points should help to relieve your eyes and allow you to soldier on over your next hackathon or when that big deadline approaches. Next week I’m going to focus in on what I call the ‘lazy posture.’

Further Reading/Reference: The Vision Council 2015 Eye Strain Report

 

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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