Sunday, April 6, 2008

On Ergonomics, Gladiators and Brad Pitt

I attended an interesting workshop sponsored by PWAC (Professional Writers Association of Canada, and pronounced Pee-Whack, which always puts me in mind of Whack-A-Mole.)

Called Freelancer Bootcamp, we covered accounting, ergonomics, blogging and photography. I'll talk about the first two today.

Listening to an accountant give a workshop on how to file a tax return is like going for a root canal - painful, but necessary. And I say this with apologies to my husband, who actually does root canals (though in all fairness, given how difficult it is to make tax law even mildly interesting, I suppose accountants can't be blamed.) Some freelancers in attendance must have found it useful since there were lots of questions, but since a) I have an accountant who handles my money and b) I don't have much money to handle, I mostly a) doodled and b) kept close watch on the baked goods until the coffee break.

He almost had me when he brought up Brad Pitt as an example of a good deductible. If I were to fly to L.A. and interview Brad Pitt and come back straight away, I could deduct the entire trip, he explained. But if I stayed for two weeks (because, say, Angelina was out of town and Brad needed companionship) then I wouldn't be able to deduct my airfare. Excuse me? What difference could it possibly make to the Quebec government if I stay one night or fourteen in the arms of Brad Pitt? The airfare stays the same. I puzzled that one out until that workshop was over.

Bernie Shalinsky on the other hand, the ergonomics expert, was more interesting. He explained, using illustrations of stick figures with bendy spines slumped over their improperly positioned stick computers, how the right set-up in a home office can help productivity. This was of special interest to me, seeing as I broke every single rule he laid out and I paid for my transgressions with a frozen shoulder last fall. And while 'frozen shoulder' doesn't actually sound that bad, it meant months where I couldn't sleep, wash myself, lift a grocery bag or laundry basket, vacuum (now that I think of it, there were a few advantages) or move properly. Months people.

So, if you want to avoid problems like carpel tunnel, neck and back pain, and yes, frozen shoulders, he suggests the following:

*Take a break every 20 minutes.

This one is problematic for writers, particularly fiction writers, since they get into the zone, and can't just walk away and or they'll break the flow. But Bernie insisted an hour is the longest one should go without moving around and/or stretching.

I like the so-called 20/20/20 rule. Take a break every 20 minutes, even if only for 20 seconds, and look 20 feet away.

*Use a proper chair.

The new design is one that incorporates five splayed legs on rollers, proper lumbar support, with an open back with room for ones buttocks. There should be an adjustable spring underneath to increase or decrease the tension, and the back should tilt back slightly. Rocking is also good, and no arms is best. This one was a surprise to me. Apparently, your arms and shoulders will be more relaxed if you leave the arms off the chair. This is one of the biggest mistakes he sees in offices. Just rest your arms on your lap and you'll see what he means.

*Have an adjustable height work surface.

This is clutch, as we're all different heights, so positioning the chair is not enough. Place the keyboard tray in such a way as the shoulders are relaxed. If you don't have a desk tray, and the desk is 28-30" above the floor, it's too high for most people.

*The keyboard should be positioned just above lap level, and the keyboard itself should be as flat as possible.

You need to maintain a flat, neutral wrist position to avoid carpel tunnel. Keep your elbows at a comfortable, open angle. You want to avoid reaching for anything - keyboards, as well as phones, pens, mugs of coffee. And if your keyboard has those little plastic feet attached either fold them away or break them off. Do not use them to lift the keyboard.

*Don't use a trackball on a mouse.

It can lead to thumbitis. No one wants thumbitis. Ask a Blackberry addict about thumbitis. You will have a lot of pain, and get zero sympathy. In fact, I'm guessing you will be mocked cruelly. (And now I'm left wondering if this is a new condition, or if gladiators had carpel tunnel problems from improperly supporting their wrists from waving their swords about, or thumbitis from lugging their shields in battle. If they complained about thumbitis, it isn't in any of the records, unless they were the ones thrown to the lions.) The Roller Mouse Pro has a trackball built into the keyboard centre.

*Use a headset for the phone.

No more squeezing the phone between your head and neck. The reasons are obvious.

*Use a wedge footrest.

This supports your feet and lifts your legs so you have proper seating posture. Ditto for the wrist rest, if you feel you need one, but don't use it for your wrist. Use it to support your palm, which lifts your arm into that neutral position.

*Place the computer screen directly in front of you.

It seems like common sense, but you don't want to look left or right, or strain even in a small way, because over time the little movements like tilting your head forward a few inches can add up to a big pain in the neck. It should be about arm's length away. If you have problems seeing the screen, you can get glasses made specifically for computer use. Make sure the screen is clean, and increase the font size and viewing size so you reduce eye strain.

*Beware of glare.

And not just from that guy in the next cubicle who resents your promotion. From windows and harsh overhead lighting, glare on the screen and in your eyes can create all kinds of headaches if you're forced to squint. Uplighting is a good alternative, as is a softer ambient light, but it's not always an option in an office environment. Some office workers have resorted to baseball caps or even golf umbrellas to keep the harsh light at bay. Take an old photographers' trick and make sure there is no contrast between the monitor and the background.

And to reward your patience and kind attention, I offer you this, because no blog on ergonomics would be complete without a photo of Brad Pitt playing a gladiator:


Lottery Girl said...

Absolutely terrific post--so helpful!

I can somewhat relate to the frozen shoulder thing, except that I've only had that for a few days at a time at most. I'm sorry to hear you had that for months. OW!

I bought a gorgeous desk and chair with the earnings from my freelancing, and I'm sorry to say that I hardly ever do work there for an extended period of time, because it just isn't that comfortable. The wedge thing for the feet sounds good, and I had no idea about the arm rests.

I find I need a good yoga stretch after sitting for long periods. I stand up straight, pull my arms over my head like Superman, and stretch like this from side for several minutes. Then I bend at the waist and let my arms dangle freely. Finally, when I return to a standing position, I roll up one vertebrae at a time. Ahhh! That feels so good...

Anonymous said...

Very, very helpful. Ergonomics are very important, and I'll keep these tips in mind when choosing my next chair (or booking my flight to see Brad).

BB said...

Wow... that saved me attending any conference at all! Not that there are too many scheduled within 500km of where I live, but it's something I would DEFINITELY consider attending if one WAS available. And now I don't have to. (Are you asleep yet? I REALLY need a photo of Brad Pitt to wake you up again. All I have to offer is a steaming horse - and hot horseman - at my place. Will that do?). Seriously though, that was GREAT... and you finished with such a flourish that I now have a silly smile on my face. The sign of a successful post, I believe! Now to rearrange my little corner into something remotely ergonomic...

Trudy said...

Great tips, NW! Thankyou for posting them. Lookin' forward to the next lot.

How about posting a pic of the Greek dude in 300 next time? Purley for eye strain adjustment, of course....:)

A Novel Woman said...

LG, the yoga stretch was something he recommended too. He got us to do it mid-lecture, but the idea of baring my mid-drift in a room full of strangers, well, let's just say I'd rather have kinked muscles.

The arms on the chairs was the biggest surprise to me, but he emphasized that they were not important.

And if you don't have a wedge, use a 3 inch binder.

A Novel Woman said...

Bush Babe, I wasn't expecting it to be half as interesting as it was. But I'm living proof it makes a difference.

Trudy, I considered Gerard Butler but the accountant really did use the Brad Pitt example.(g) I'm not really a big Brad fan. Now Ray Stephenson, the fellow who played Titus Pullo in the ROME still my heart. (fanning self) Oh great. I've completely lost my concentration now.

A Novel Woman said...

Stevenson. Ray STEVENSON. If I'm going to lust after him, I may as well spell his name right.

Linda G. said...

Oh, Bob and I are in the middle of the first season of Rome right now. I _love_ Titus Pullo. Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) ain't gonna break your eyes, either. {sigh}


A Novel Woman said...

Linda, I felt like that once. But just keep watching. While I wouldn't exactly kick Verenus out of bed for eating crackers, Pullo is my man.

Btw, have you heard Kevin out of character? He's got a Scottish accent to die for.

Lynne Sears Williams said...

I ignored the entire lecture, since I already know it. As for Brad Pitt, he wasn't being a gladiator. He was being Achilles, who sure enough, went down when a guy witha buncha arrows shot him. Not in the heel, which would go with the common parlance, in his calf. If you believe the movie 'Troy.' Why should we not believe that version of the story? Well...because Brad Pitt was in it!

A Novel Woman said...

Lynne, HAHAHAHAHAAAA!!! I was wondering if someone was going to bring that up! You get the prize for historical accuracy. The only reason I mentioned him was because the accountant actually used Brad Pitt as an example, and I talked about gladiators and I thought I might get away with it. Silly me.

Now I think I should post a photo of Lucius Vorenus or Titus Pullo, althought technically they weren't gladiators either, but Roman centurions (who happened to fight gladiators at one point.)

dykewife said...

brad pit aside, i got carpal tunnel, not from typing or improper posture (which is my entire life), but from wood carving.

i have one of those ergonomic keyboards. it isn't flat and i absolutely adore it. i can not only use those little legs at the back, but it came with a further lift piece that can be removed (i removed it). when i have to do an essay or something like that, i hook my keyboard to my laptop and go for it.

i also use a trackball because of tennis elbow, which was aggravated by using a regular mouse. i guess things'll get you coming or going.

klasieprof said...

Rockin post.

good stuff!!

Linda G. said...

Okay, we finished the first season of Rome. (And might I just say that I'm glad no one has invented Splattervision yet. You know the scene I mean... {g}) Anyway, I do see what you mean. Pullo all the way.

I _have_ heard Kevin McKidd's Scottish dialect. {heavy sigh} I do love what a good Scot can do with his mother tongue... {wg}


A Novel Woman said...


I just watched CASINO ROYALE again last night, and that scene where Vesper says, "if there was nothing left of you but a smile and your little finger, you'd still be more of a man than anyone I've ever known." And she's all serious and teary-eyed, and Bond waits, then says, "that's because you know what I can do with my little finger."

Oh my.

Just wait until Season Two of Rome.

Full frontal.

Just saying.

And if you thought Season One was gory....oh, mama. I'm so sorry it's all over but the shouting.

Am I the only one who imagines what it would be like to rub Pullo's head?

Linda G. said...

Full frontal? Oh, geez. {fanning self} Tell me you're not talking about the ladies.

And if you try to rub Pullo's head, you'll find my hand there ahead of yours. We'll have to thumb-wrestle for him. {g}

Okay, I'm going to the video rental store for season two first thing tomorrow...

Oh, and I _love_ that scene in Casino Royale. That, and the scene in the shower. Who knew just fingers could be so erotic? {g}

Linda, a sucker for Brits.

Unknown said...

Hahaha. I laughed at the "beware of glare" part.

Anyway, I suffered from shoulder pains as well. I actually sought treatment at a Chiropractic Brooklyn Center, MN clinic to have it treated. The chiropractor (Brooklyn Center, MN) was good and I felt the results right there and then. But I don't want to suffer the pain again so I'll follow the tips you posted (speaking of which, I checked my keyboard and I folded the flaps. haha!). Thanks for sharing this!

Deborah Small said...

Fascinating. All of your tips (ergo) _except_ the free arms thing are same as I got from Occupational Therapist after I went off work two years ago with the severe rotator cuff tendinitis. He said elbows on arms on chair were absolutely necessary to support weight of arm as the small muscles used to type cannot handle added stress of supporting entire arm, too. Because I can't find a chair w/arms that come in narrow enough to rest my elbows, he advised me to find a standing desk that is height adjustable and deep enough to push monitor back and set keyboard on so my arms rest on table top.

I am confused.

Thank God there's Brad Pitt to distract me... *g*

Take care!