Oh – My Aching Back! Computer Ergonomics2013-08-28T17:13:28-04:00

By Rich Abrams, CSS
July 2001
Reprint Protection News - Spring 2001

In the security field, officers and dispatchers spend part or all of their workday seated at a computer. Often, there are complaints to the supervisor of back pain, muscle cramps, fatigue, numbness in the fingers or wrist, stiffness, and burning eyes. OSHA has established all of these symptoms as "Computer Related Stress," and is now calling for a national standard of ergonomics. (Webster: "The study of problems that people have in adjusting to their environment; especially seeking to adapt working conditions to suit the worker…")

What does a security manager need to know when looking at the alarm room, console, or security desk? According to UCLA, the computer screen should be located twenty to thirty inches from the user’s eyes. One major concern is the height of the monitor, which should be at the same height or a little lower than the top of the user’s head. An incorrect location may cause slouching or twisting of the neck. Another concern is the angle of viewing, which should be slightly downward if possible. The manager should use the tilt feature built into newer computer monitors to adjust for his staff’s comfort – this avoids the "fuzzy screen". If there is a problem with overhead lighting such as strong florescent glare, a filter can be installed over the face of the screen. One more comment, which comes from personal experience of the author: make sure that graphics and lettering are large enough to be visible from the two-foot distance, as I have often had to squint or click on the ‘enlarge’ button just to read the needed information.

We discussed the screen, but what about the keyboard? The best location is at elbow height, where someone naturally drops his arms when in a seated position. The elbows should be at a ninety degree angle, and the wrists flat. Keyboards still need to have identifying marks such as "function" keys, because even speedy typists look down at the keys when adjusting paragraphs, punctuation, or numerical data. The newest movement in ergonomics is the split keyboard, which breaks the keys into two sections to avoid Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. (A disease of the wrist and finger joints caused by extended use of the digits, such as typing). If you use a keyboard tray, make sure that it is adjustable and well anchored. If repetitive numerical data is entered, use the numbers on the right side of the keyboard instead of those above the letter keys.

OK – so the computer screen is adjusted and the keyboard is placed; what about the security officer’s comfort? The chair is the single most important part of the office, because it is occupied for eight hours each shift. The manager should ensure that each operator is able to make adjustments in height, angle, and armrest position based on personal comfort. The feet should rest on the floor for lumbar support. There are many choices available, ranging from the $99 secretary’s chair from Staples to the $700 "911" chair from Pro-Kopper that was field tested in patrol cars before being marketed to dispatch centers. The height and seating adjustments should allow for a slightly reclined position, as well as the ability to swing sideways and roll when necessary to reach alarm equipment mounted in the console. In short, the same comfort that you enjoy after a hard day’s work in your living room lounge chair should be available to your officers.

The final factor in security center comfort is the console itself. Again, there are many commercial manufactures such a Winsted and Delta Designs who will work with the security manager to design a desk and overhead equipment rack as needed. The nineteen-inch rack mount for electronic equipment is still accepted, so make sure that all video and communications equipment that you purchase will fit into the standard space. Larger television monitors should be placed overhead and angled with ceiling mounts for viewer comfort. If interior decoration is a factor, cabinet facing can be colored matched to the carpet or wall paint color, although dark blue and steel gray continue to be the two favorites. Remember to allow adequate ventilation or fan cooling to eliminate heat caused by electronics. If you build your own console, design it with the twenty four hour a day seven day a week user as your standard. When you reach for the phone, is it at arm’s reach? When you use a door access button, can it be pressed without strain? When someone calls on the radio, are the speakers and microphone easily accessible? Have you allowed space on the countertop for books, pads and pens? (No matter how automated a security center is, the officer still needs to write things down!) You can no longer just use a standard office desk and some "X-Mart" cabinets to house your equipment.

The security manager has many responsibilities, but one urgent task is assuring the comfort of his officers in the monitoring or operations center. After all, as mentioned earlier, the furniture will be used continuously and should be adjustable as well as durable. The console must allow for expansion, plus easy viewing of screens and unobstructed use of telephone or access controls. You may choose to go high, with a two or three bay turret system; or sideways with an expandable desktop and drawer system. Even with a custom design, employee complaints about back pain, eyestrain, or other symptoms should be addressed and corrections made as needed. Modern ergonomics will help the supervisor to create a comfortable work environment for his officers when surrounded with computer monitors, keyboards, communications and access controls, and whatever else is needed for public safety.

Rich Abrams is employed by Yale University Security in the alarm center, and is an active member of IFPO, NBFAA and ASIS. He has consulted in the design and maintenance of security and dispatch centers, and has been in emergency communications for over twenty years.