The Laptop Part 3: Trading Convenience For Risk

This is the final part of our in-depth series on how to set-up a laptop. In Part 1 we looked on how to identify an ideal ergonomic set-up to lay the foundation of what a ‘gold standard’ set-up looks like. In Part 2 we dug into the specific ergonomic risks involved with long-term laptop use (did these sound familiar to anyone?). And, in this last post we will be sharing some solutions on how to look at the ergonomics of your set-up with the perspective of reducing the ergonomic risk. Interested? Scroll down for more!

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How To Fix Your Laptop Set-up

But Before We Start… Let’s Recap Parts 1 & 2

The Office Ergonomics Gold Standard for just the laptop set-up is:

  • The top of the monitor’s screen should be positioned slightly lower than your resting eye height. It should be positioned about one arm’s length away from you. And the bottom of the monitor should be tilted upwards towards you at approximately a 15 degree angle.
  • The keyboard and mouse should be positioned close to you to ensure that you don’t over-extend your arm and shoulder to use them. They should also be positioned slightly lower than your resting (and comfortable) elbow height.

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The main ergonomic risks associated with using a laptop for extended periods of time are:

  • Excessive and sustained neck flexion (an awkward neck posture) resulting in pain and discomfort overtime;
  • Awkward and static upper extremity postures (including the shoulders and elbows) that can also result in pain and discomfort overtime; and
  • Leaning forward in the chair to vie for a more comfortable hand working height while typing and using the mouse, just to sacrifice back comfort.

So, How Do We FIX This? 

This post is based off of a standard laptop set-up, where a laptop is placed on top of a desk. There are no ‘extras’, just the laptop… and maybe a cup of coffee. Based on this set-up the areas that we need to optimize ergonomically are:

  1. The laptop screen is far too low for the majority of users. Additionally, the viewing distance is too short for many users. The combination of these can further compound awkward and extreme neck bending postures. Held for long durations, this can bring discomfort.
  2. Although the reach distance to the mouse may be OK, the reach to the keyboard may be a little extreme for some users, resulting in upper extremity strain overtime. Adding to this is that the actual keyboard layout and design can contribute to wrist and forearm discomfort for some.
  3. Many times the hand working height (the keyboard and mouse) is much too high for the majority of users. This can result in upper extremity discomfort as well as leaned forward back postures. As we mentioned, leaning forward is a BIG ergonomic risk in contributing to lower back discomfort.

If you use a laptop for prolonged periods of time or if the laptop is your main input source you’d definitely want to consider these.

Note: You don’t necessarily need to buy all fancy equipment to improve your laptop set-up, but you may need to buy some. We’ll walk you through different options and combinations, especially related to how you can save some cash.

1. The Laptop Screen

If you use your laptop for prolonged periods of time then the screen needs to be at an ergonomic level, which is noted at the beginning of this post. There are a number of ways that you can do this:

  1. Use an external monitor
  2. Use a laptop stand
  3. ‘Make-shift’ your own laptop stand with textbooks, etc (you can really get creative with this approach to save money!)

Obviously this all depends on where you are working; working at a coffee shop will mean different solutions than working at an office. The key in whatever solution that you choose to go with is that the top of the screen (laptop or external monitor) must be positioned slightly lower than your seated eye height. Another word of caution here, if you end up choosing to go with a laptop stand or the make-shift option, since the entire laptop will now be positioned at a much higher level you will need to use an external keyboard and mouse. For ease of traveling, I tend to recommend wireless compact keyboards and mice. More on this in the next section. 

2. The Keyboard & Mouse

Using a laptop’s keyboard and mouse tends to result awkward postures that may not be appropriate for all users in addition to the longer reach distance to type. User preferences and the overall workstation set-up (see the above section) will also play a role in what input method work best for you. There are a number of options that are available and from an ergonomic perspective, if you are a long-term laptop user you should really invest in an appropriate keyboard for your needs and/or any discomfort that you are experiencing. There are many options out there and we have done many ergonomic reviews on keyboards and mice (see below). For instance, if you are someone who is larger than the average, you might find that a keyboard that flares outward really improves your comfort level.

You Can Find Our Ergonomic Product Reviews Here:

3. The Hand Working Height

One of the most important yet often overlooked risk factors for long-term laptop use is the hand working height. How many times have you walked into a coffee shop and noticed that every single person using a laptop is leaned forward to type? Probably very often. This puts a large amount of strain in the lower back. There are a couple of ways to improve your hand working height. These are:

  1. Raise your chair height so you can attain an appropriate hand working height, OR
  2. Lower the keyboard/mouse height

Let’s talk about the first option. Raising your chair height (if you have a pneumatic chair) to an appropriate level is a simple and straight forward option. If you don’t have access to a pneumatic chair, a make-shift solution is to place another cushion, blankets, etc on the chair seat (aka seat pan) below your bottom that would raise you a little higher. Of course, this wouldn’t be considered an ideal fix but in my opinion it is better than nothing! The key thing for this approach is that your feet must always be in firm contact with the floor. So, if you end up needing to raise your chair to a higher level you must place something below your feet to reduce the strain on your lower back and improve your overall comfort. A footrest works great. I’ve worked with clients in the past who used stacks of printer paper (as a temporary solution) until they could order footrests for their staff.

Another, more expensive option is to install a keyboard tray. This would be appropriate for an office or somewhere that you have a vested interest in. With this strategy, you could either purchase a pre-fabricated keyboard tray (would likely cost more than $150) or a more ‘make-shift’ strategy (would likely cost less than $50). With the make-shift approach, the lowered work surface would be mounted below the desk/table with Keyboard slides. You would then need to get a work surface between the mounts/slides. You really have some flexibility here. It can be a shelf, scrap piece of wood from another project, a piece of wood from Home Depot, etc.

How To Carry Your Laptop

The way that you choose to transport your laptop can also contribute to ergonomic risk, notably in the shoulder area. This study found that 61% of participants reported discomfort with carrying their laptop. Technically speaking, a backpack would be considered the most ergonomic. A backpack evenly distributes the weight of the laptop (and accessories) between the two shoulders and usually has padded straps that helps even more to distribute the weight evenly. But, realistically how many professionals would choose to carry a backpack with them everywhere they go? I would wager that this would be a very low percentage. A useful alternative would be to purchase a shoulder bag with wide and thick padding combined with a habit of switching between each shoulder whenever you carry it to further reduce the ergonomic risk to just one shoulder.

Have We Sparked Your Ergonomic Interest? Here are some hand-picked articles that we think you would enjoy:

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Through the administration of countless assessments in both private and public sectors, Darcie has gained a wealth of knowledge and built a successful practice in the field of ergonomics. She has extensive expertise in conducting office ergonomics assessments in large scale workplaces for all different types of scenarios, from simple adjustments to incredibly complex cases. Darcie also has vast experience in delivering training presentations on the various aspects of ergonomics “best practices” in the workplace. Darcie is a Certified Professional Ergonomist through the Board of Certification in Professional Ergonomics, as recognized by the International Ergonomics Association. She also has a Masters of Science, specializing in ergonomics. A little known fact about Darcie is that she once scored from half, off a free kick, in a university varsity soccer (football) match!

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