Workstation is a general term used to describe two different types of computer systems. At its most sophisticated, a workstation is a high-end, typically expensive, computer used for computer-aided design (CAD), computer-aid engineering (CAE), graphics, simulation, and other applications requiring significant computing resources. At its most basic, a workstation is any personal computer used for business, professional, home, or recreational purposes. A workstation typically includes a combination of a mouse, keyboard, monitor, and central processing unit. It may also include peripheral devices such as a modem, scanner, or printer. In a business setting, a workstation PC is often linked with other computers to a local area network (LAN), which enables it to use the resources of other larger computers in the LAN. A PC, if it has its own hard drive for storage and its own applications installed on it, can be used independently even if it is part of a network.
PCs are a fixture in any business, large or small, and are used for word processing, data entry, and other functions. PCs bring with them the expected potential for improved productivity and efficiency. But what some business owners may not realize is that extensive use of PCs by their employees may also result in the employees developing ailments that, in turn, have the potential to lower a business's productivity and increase its healthcare and workers' compensation costs.
The most commonly reported problem associated with computer use is eyestrain. James Sheedy of the University of California—Berkeley estimates that ten million cases of eyestrain are reported each year. As Don Sellers noted in Zap!: How Your Computer Can Hurt You and What You Can Do About It, "The computer is a much more visually demanding environment than people think." To reduce employee eyestrain, employers should adjust lighting to reduce glare on computer screens and encourage workers to take regular breaks to look away from the screen and refocus on a distant object. Employees, particularly those who already wear bifocals, may also want to invest in eyeglasses designed specifically to be worn while working with a computer.
Computer users also face the risk of developing more serious repetitive stress injuries, or cumulative trauma disorders (CTDs). These injuries are disorders of the musculo-nervous system that involve nerve compression and wear and tear on muscles and tendons. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that all CTDs—not just those related to computer use—account for 61 percent of occupational illness cases. The direct cost of a CTD is placed at about $27,500 by the National Council on Compensation Insurance, while the indirect costs may include wages for temporary help, overtime pay, and retraining.
According to Sellers, repetitive stress injuries "could possibly be the most serious effect of using a desktop computer and can be very debilitating." Perhaps the best-known type of repetitive-stress injury is carpal-tunnel syndrome, which is usually related to keyboard use. The syndrome is the result of putting pressure on the nerves that run from the hand to the arm and is characterized by pain and weakness in the hand, arm, and even the shoulder.
Dr. Bruce Bernard of the U.S. National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health encourages employers to evaluate the nature and extent of keyboard use. "Generally," he says, "carpal tunnel syndrome is not found in the workplace unless tendonitis appears there first. You don't want to wait until tendonitis presents itself. You really need to take seriously employee complaints of discomfort." Sellers echoes this approach, urging employers "to examine the workstation environment. Just simply look at how a person is using a workstation: Is he or she comfortable?"
To ensure a comfortable workstation, employers need to be aware of workplace ergonomics, which is the effective and safe interaction between people and things. When reviewing the current work environment, employers should look to see if employees have already made their own adjustments to improve comfort. For example, has an employee placed his monitor on a stack of books, added a cushion to his chair, or placed the legs of his desk on blocks? If so, then clearly the original workstation configuration is not effective. Employers may then consider investing in ergonomically designed furniture and computer accessories that can be adjusted to meet the needs of an individual employee.
Employers should also encourage employees who work extensively with computers to take regular breaks. Marvin Dainoff, director of the Center for Ergonomics Research at Miami University of Ohio, urges employers to "remember that people are not machines." Dainoff also recommends stretching as a means of eliminating musculoskeletal problems. Finally, Bernard and other experts urge employers to create an environment where employees feel they can speak up when they are experiencing any pain or dis-comfort. The sooner a problem is identified, the greater the employer's chance of controlling related costs.
Cady, Eric. "Is Your Workplace a Trauma Center?" Small Business Reports. October 1994.
Freedman, Alan. Computer Desktop Encyclopedia. The Computer Language Company Inc., 1996.
Lewin, David L. "Preventive Medicine at Work." Nation's Business. March 1995.