Sunday, 28 December 2008

Ergonomics for the writer

Ergonomics is the study of man, or individual men, in the working environment. The term is derived from the Greek "ergon" for work (and nothing to do with Jason and the Argonauts) and "nomos" which is law and nothing to do with "gnomic" remarks. Ergonomics is now a recognised profession and one of its pioneers was Henry Dreyfuss, who was one of the first superstar industrial designers. His most famous work was not John Deere tractors or the streamlined locomotives he designed for the "Twentieth Century Limited". It was a text book entitled The Measure of Man and this became staple reading for students, like me, of industrial design. The Measure of Man obviously refers just as equally to female women of the opposite persuasion but to publish a seprate book entitled The Measure of Women would probably attract the wrong sort of readership - even though it would have been much more interesting to a load of teenage predominantly male industrial designers and probably have become even more of a best seller.

So what has this to do with writers and the sedentary business of writing?

One of the benefits of being the budget manager for the health and safety team at work is the advice I absord about work station design. (I've also learnt a lot about safety risk management. I now do a risk assessment before I do anything stupid in my workshop, sorry studio. I still do them but at least I know how daft they are and I think that's the important thing. I could have mitigated against the risk but chose not to. So, what's new? I laugh in the face of danger - so long as it's safe to do so.)

One of the greatest current areas for health and safety concerns (health and safety guys don't have issues, man, they have concerns) is about laptops. It's nigh on impossible to work in the position shown in the diagram above when you're using a laptop. This has serious implications when it comes to hot desking. No organisation wants to be shown to have committed corporate negligence if their staff get repitive strain injuries and bad backs.

Having used a laptop to produce two books of 140,000 words apiece and acquired a few (fortunately) temporary aches and pains in the process, I can fully understand what the heath and safety guys are concerned about. I think I've been able to mitigate against the effects of bad posture while using my laptop and a little careful thought can minimise the risk of repetitive strain injury or posture related problems for you, too.

This is me in action. Unfortunately, it's just a still photo so you can't appreciate the speed at which I type. The shutter was speed was quite fast in this shot so you can't see how fast my fingers were moving (both of them). Anyway, it gives you an idea of how I've come close to achieving my optimum working position. The seat is not what you could call a computer chair. Most of these keep the head and pelvis vertically in line. I prefer a more relaxed seating position because I get my best ideas when drifting off to sleep. Yes, I work best when in a brown study. This way, I can suddenly snap out out of my torpor (good word) and record my thoughts.

So how have I achieved such postural nirvana?

This is an invalid table with the table top unbolted and turned through ninety degrees. This simple modification allowed me to slide in from one side but with my laptop on top it fell over. I solve dthat by weighing it down with one of my weight-training dumbbells. Because this table is on casters and the dumbbell is round, I can push this back and forth for when I get up and sit down. On this particular type of bed table, the tabletop can be angled and when combined with an adjustable height and further experiments with the angle of the screen of my laptop, I was able to get the screen on the ideal line of sight, as recommended by my health and safety colleagues, which is just below your line of sight. This avoids neck pain.

More general advice is as follows.

Don't hunch over your laptop. Don't have it on your lap. It should be on a separate surface that's steady and allows you to stretch out your legs.

Be careful of using the touchpad, too. I found that, after prolonged use, I grew a pain my left hand side. Although I am right-handed, I'm left handed when it comes to using a computer mouse and the same is true for a laptop touchpad. I found the best solution was to use a cordless mouse. This came with the cordless keyboard and by using this across my knees with the laptop some way away from me I found a much more comfortable writing position.

Now that I have my voice recognition software, I am doubly protected against repetitive strain injuries in the hands and wrists. I still need to use a mouse and a keyboard to make corrections but my voice is much better evolved as a communication device than my fingers.

And, dare I say it, I quite like the sound of my voice.

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