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On Research

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One size doesn’t fit all

February 20, 2014

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If you type all day (as I do) and start experiencing wrist or hand discomfort, it stands to reason that switching to an ergonomic keyboard would help. But would it?

A recent study examining the effectiveness of ergonomic keyboards reaches some interesting conclusions.

First, a point of clarification: Instead of calling keyboards “ergonomic,” lead author Nancy Baker, associate professor in the department of occupational therapy at the University of Pittsburgh, prefers the term “alternative.”

“Something’s only ergonomic if it actually fits a person,” she told me. A keyboard could be ergonomic for 90 percent of people who use it, but what about the 10 percent who find it uncomfortable?

Her study, which was funded by NIOSH and is scheduled to be published in an upcoming issue of Work: A Journal of Prevention, Assessment and Rehabilitation, involved 77 computer users who were experiencing wrist or hand pain. Participants used a fixed split-angle (alternative) keyboard or standard flat keyboard at work for five months, and then switched to the other type.

After the switch, approximately 80 percent of people in the study reported less discomfort regardless of which keyboard they had, suggesting fixed split-angle keyboards don’t have an advantage over standard keyboards in reducing discomfort.

Although just about everyone in the study found it hard to acclimate to the alternative keyboard at first, some came to adore it while others favored the standard one.

“The keyboard has to fit the person’s style and what they do,” Baker said. “It is not a one-size-fits-all.”

If you’re like me, you’re wondering how researchers on other studies could have reached a different conclusion about the effectiveness of ergonomic keyboards. Here’s the possible answer: Baker’s study found the alternative keyboard helped reduce awkward posture while typing, which is believed to be a source of musculoskeletal pain. Yet when she measured discomfort in participants, the keyboards were equally effective.

In her opinion, other researchers may have assumed the change in posture would reduce musculoskeletal discomfort without actually testing if that was true.

As for why both keyboards seemed to work for some people, Baker noted that everyone in the study received a new keyboard they were told had the potential to reduce discomfort. In other words, people who were experiencing pain actively sought out an intervention.

“I think it was the decision to make a change that was the driving impetus for the reduction in discomfort,” Baker said. “The other thing to remember about pain is it fluctuates. Pain comes and goes.”

So if your workers complain about pain from keyboard use, try a bunch of different keyboards and see which works best.

“What they need is a thoughtful implementation of what is going to work to make them better,” Baker said. “In some cases it may be an alternative keyboard, and in some cases it won’t be.”

The opinions expressed in "On Research" do not necessarily reflect those of the National Safety Council or affiliated local Chapters.

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