Integrating Speech Into The Big Picture of Ergonomics

Ergonomics is about 'fit': the fit between people, the things they do, the objects they use and the environments they work, travel and play in. If good fit is achieved, the stresses on people are reduced. They are more comfortable, they can do things more quickly and easily, and they make fewer mistakes.

When we are typing on the computer, we may have one hand on the keyboard, our other hand on the mouse, our eyes on the screen. We are in a locked position. When we factor in talking on the phone without a headset or sitting in a maladjusted chair, the situation becomes worse.

Many people incorporate speech recognition into their work routines without realizing it is a tool to improve the design of the work environment. Speech recognition technology is a huge step in improving the ergonomic "fit" in one’s workplace, but it is just one of several components that need to be considered in creating a space with good ergonomic design. Cumulative Trauma Disorders are caused by factors including force, vibration, constrained or awkward posture, repetition and static loading. Speech recognition decreases exposure to each of these risk factors by freeing the body, allowing us to move away from the keyboard when we dictate and away from the display when we are listening to our email. But, if the workstation is not otherwise set up properly, we are still in a static posture, which contributes to injury.

While many people need to use speech recognition to restore lost function, the progression of the technology is providing more mainstream reasons for people to want to use their voices to interact with the computer. We use voice to increase productivity and profitability and to decrease overload and the risk of injury.

Today, not only do we talk to our computers, our computers talk to us. This interaction is proliferating, incorporating itself into other aspects of our lives, including integration into PDAs and cell phones. While use of speech provides freedom of movement, most people stop there, without modifying other aspects of their workstation design. Implementing speech recognition while still sitting in a chair that is not adjusted properly prevents us from taking full advantage of the technology.

"Once we have taken away the physical demands of typing and mousing, we can rethink the rest (of the workstation design)," says Rani Lueder, president of Humanics ErgoSystems. Lueder, an ergonomist and expert in occupational ergonomics and workplace safety, has done extensive research on the subject of work related injuries and has found that when time at the computer is increased from two hours to four hours a workday, the pain rate is approximately doubled. Further increasing the time again from four hours to six hours a day at the computer almost doubles the collective pain rate again.

Based on statistics from OSHA, there were 500,000 fewer job-related injuries in 2001 than in the previous year, an 8 percent decrease. The report further found a 10 percent reduction in Repetitive Trauma Injuries, including carpal tunnel syndrome. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports injuries have decreased in each of the last nine years. While these statistics may sound encouraging, critics charge that these numbers may be misleading because of what many consider to be flawed reporting methods.

"Implementing speech is an opportunity to work a new way,"says Lueder, who provides expert testimony on workplace safety, product design and child ergonomics. So, for the individual who is a potential user of speech, or for the speech recognition veteran, Lueder recommends users complement speech by considering the following:
Seating — Become familiar with your chair and make adjustments in the following order:
1.Seat Height
2.Seat Depth
3.Backrest The backrest tension adjustment is one of the most critical factors in adjusting one’s chair, but it is the least used feature. When setting the tension of the chair, it is imperative the person who will be using the chair tries the adjustment and plays with it until she finds a natural balance point. The user should always be able to move effortlessly while being comfortable and supported. Setting the tension in this manner will ensure the user is always supported and will allow him to naturally slide in and out of postural envelopes.
Monitor — Most people work at the computer with their monitor too high -- even though research has shown that looking down on the monitor and tilting it back decreases eyestrain while at the same time providing a more natural position for the neck. Tilting back the monitor can increase the risk of glare, but if this issue can be addressed, tilting up the monitor decreases the tendency to hunch down while working at the computer, thereby minimizing neck strain. With presbyopic people, usually ages 40 and older, lowering the visual target will improve vision because as we age the near point, or closest point we can see, moves back. This is especially useful with the aging generation of baby boomers who have difficulty seeing up close. To verify this, hold a business card, bringing it in as close to your eyes as possible while still being able to read the card. At that distance, lower the card while keeping it at the same viewing distance. Did lowering the card make it easier to read? The monitor should be placed as far back as an individual is comfortably able to read the screen with ease. Placing the monitor closer contributes to strain. This near-work contributes to myopia and limits posture.
Document Placement — When one is using the computer and is referencing hard copy documentation, if the reference material is lying on the desk, the user is still required to hunch his neck forward, constraining posture. In this instance, the user has not benefited from speech recognition because he still is static. To alleviate this problem, all one needs to do is raise the document, but it must be done in such a way that it allows the user to view it while comfortably sitting in a variety of postures. So, what is the perfect height for the document? While many users may presume the document should be placed alongside the monitor, this may not be completely accurate. The resolution of the monitor is a factor, as is the contrast and the size of the characters, both on the screen and the hard copy. Image contrast and quality being equal, if the font size of the document is much smaller than the font on the screen, the document should be placed closer than the display.
Lighting — The area around the computer should be kept darker than the rest of the work environment. The optimal amount of lighting varies and depends on factors like the angle of the monitor. Overhead and natural lighting often create glare, contributing to eyestrain. Therefore, the amount of light must be adjusted to minimize the glare. Uplighting is effective because it washes the ceiling with light, providing the illusion of increased light. Bouncing the light off the ceiling enables users to keep the area at the computer darker, decreasing the potential for glare. Uplighting, which can be very successful in a room that has low ceilings, such as a home office, can be achieved by using the popular torchiere style lamps. Achieving a positive result by bouncing light in commercial office space, which typically has high ceilings, is more complicated and often will not work.
Phone — Telephones can now be integrated with speech recognition software, enabling the user to answer, hang up and dial the phone by voice. Upgrading to a cordless solution is another step in increasing freedom of movement.
Footrest — While it is important for the feet to be supported, too much emphasis is placed on the 90-degree knee posture. If comfortable, it is acceptable to sit with more than 90-degree knee posture but sitting lower than 90 degrees can cause back strain and should be avoided.

More likely than not, the high-level executive who decides to purchase a speech recognition system does so to increase his or her productivity or to minimize reliance on support staff, not because he or she is concerned about becoming disabled from a Cumulative Trauma Disorders. But in becoming aware of the medical risks involved in the workplace, and the criteria associated with well-designed workstations, speech recognition being a component, we can integrate speech into the fluidity of good ergonomic design with the added benefit of preventing injuries.

Robin Springer is the president of Computer Talk, a consulting firm specializing in the design and implementation of speech recognition and other hands-free technology services. She can be reached at (888) 999-9161 or info@comptalk.com.

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