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Researchers Work to Build a Better Mouse, Keyboard

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Researchers Work to Build a Better Mouse, Keyboard

By Travis Hodgkins, Public Affairs
Posted December 1, 1999

The new design of your mouse or the obscure new form of your keyboard isn't just an attempt by manufacturers at a sci-fi-oh-my-gosh-that's-cool-dude-turn-of-the-millennium new look. Indeed, there is some method within that madness -- a method is known as ergonomics.

Ergonomics is the science that adapts the work environment to the worker, in order to reduce chronic musculoskeletal disorders of the upper extremities.

There are some jobs people think of as "inherently dangerous, but we've never found a job that you can't do something for," says David Rempel, director of the Ergonomics Program and an associate professor for UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco.

According to Rempel, the Ergonomics Program, located at the Richmond Field Station, focuses on several fronts: research geared toward evaluating new technologies and ideas for designing computer tools such as keyboards and mice; consulting with companies to help make their working environments more ergonomic; and basic science research. Providing "valid, scientifically-based information," the basic science provides the bedrock for designing tools and a workplace that is friendly to the worker, says Rempel. The research primarily focuses on understanding hand and arm biomechanics during computer use.

A recent study done in connection with the staff at Lawrence Livermore National Lab revealed that benefits of ergonomically correct tools occur after a longer period of time than most people allot for them.

"People make decisions about what tools they're using based on immediate feedback," says Rempel. "They can't be making decisions about whether it's useful or not within a few weeks."

The study recruited computer users with pre-existing hand pain to use four different keyboards for six months. One keyboard in particular, the Microsoft Natural Keyboard, helped the user's hand pain and discomfort, Rempel said.

The Microsoft keyboard changes postures of the wrist, "so the wrist isn't so twisted," says Rempel. "It wouldn't normally be apparent because people make decisions about their work based on short-term information."

After two months there was no change in the condition of the user's hand pain, but soon thereafter they noticed that pain levels dropped by half.

Though there's a great amount of study conducted by Rempel's staff of experts in medicine, nursing, bioengineering, hand surgery and orthopaedics, he said experts don't always come up with the best solutions.

"People that are familiar with the job and have been doing it for a long time understand how to make it more efficient; less uncomfortable," said Rempel.

The Ergonomics Program's staff of consultants meet with companies to help with training and procedures that modify work to make it safer. Rempel says most large to mid-sized companies already have ergonomics programs in place.

The hardest employers to reach are small companies and those that employ at the minimum wage level. Recent legislation could influence this. California has had an ergonomic standard for the last two years, and the federal government released a draft standard in late November.

The Ergonomics Program is expanding their labs in connection with bioengineering.The lab will provide research in "more of the basic science end to try and understand why these disorders occur," says Rempel.

The lab will be open sometime in the next 2-3 months.



December 1, 1999 - January 11, 2000 (Volume 28, Number 16)
Copyright 1999, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the
Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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