Laptop and tablet ergonomics

Ever noticed how working on your laptop from the comfort of your own couch often leads to discomfort in your neck?

Mobile devices like laptops, tablets and cell phones allow employees to work anytime, anywhere. But this can make it harder for you, their employer, to make sure they’re doing it safely.

These devices all pose ergonomic challenges, but there are ways to minimize the risk.

The ergonomic problems with laptops

The ergonomic challenge laptops present is simple—either the keyboard is too high to properly position your wrists and arms, or the monitor is too low, leading to neck strain. And of course, if you use your laptop computer in your lap, as the name suggests, neck pain will likely follow.

On a desk at work or home

Use a docking station or an external keyboard and mouse with a riser when using a laptop at a desk. A docking station connects a closed laptop to an external keyboard, mouse and monitor. Risers lift the laptop monitor up to eye level, and the external keyboard can be positioned so your arms and wrists are in a neutral position.

Proper positioning:

  • Eyes should be looking straight ahead at the monitor, not up or down.
  • Upper arms should be resting comfortably at your sides.
  • Elbows should be bent at a 90- to 100-degree angle.
  • Wrists should be straight and flat when using your keyboard and mouse. They shouldn’t be flexed, or deviated sideways, up or down.

If there’s a situation at your workplace where multiple employees use the same workstation, get an adjustable riser.

Using a laptop on the go

Unless you carry a riser and external keyboard around with you, it’s not likely that you’ll be able to create an ergonomic setup at a coffee shop, library or inside your car. Minimize the amount of time you spend working on your laptop in these environments. If you need to move around while entering information into your laptop for some reason, such as doing inventory, use a cradle that goes over the shoulders.

Carrying the load

When you’re choosing a laptop bag, remember, two straps are better than one—making a backpack a good choice—and carrying the bag over your shoulder is better than carrying it in your hands. People tend to carry things in their hands at the end of their fingertips, which pulls on their tendons. Make sure not to overextend your reach when moving the bag in and out of your car.

Avoiding ‘tablet neck’

Reading on a tablet computer isn’t ergonomically worse than reading a book. Anytime you’re holding your head forward for a prolonged period of time, it’s going to cause neck discomfort. So what’s the issue with tablets?

“It’s not apples to apples because these machines can keep you a lot more captivated than a book can,” said SFM Loss Prevention Representative Jason Clausen. “You’re on it all the time.”

And while tablet computers weren’t really built for doing a lot of data entry, they’re being used more and more for productivity.

In the event you find yourself using your tablet more like a laptop, use an external keyboard and follow the guidelines above to properly set up your workstation. Also, consider using dictation software to minimize typing on the device.

In other cases when you’re using a tablet for an extended period of time, take short breaks to stand up and stretch your neck and arms. For more on stretching, see SFM’s page on preventing strains and sprains.

Tips for any mobile device

In today’s society, it’s not realistic to think employees will never work with their computers on their laps or their heads bent over their iPads, but it’s important that they limit the amount of time spent working in these less-than-ideal positions and take regular micro breaks while they’re doing it.

“If you give yourself short, periodic recovery periods, you can really reduce the chance for musculoskeletal disorders,” Clausen said. “Ergonomic risk factors are largely a function of repetition, force and duration.”

More resources:

This post was originally published on October 8, 2013, and updated on June 2, 2017.

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