An operator working in the Rochester, N.Y., Office of Emergency Communications had such acute pain in her fingers, she was forced to leave her job. And she wasn't alone; at one point, more than one-third of Rochester 911's work force was diagnosed with musculo-skeletal disorders that included numbness in the hands, wrists and elbows.

The culprit is ergonomics, or lack thereof. Staff members handling emergency calls in the office were using new technology without ergonomically designed furniture or equipment. The situation was resolved when the workers' union and city management collaborated to design an entirely new facility that accommodated workers' physical needs, including workstations with adjustable keyboards and screens.

Not every computer-related health problem becomes so extreme, nor do all situations require a top-to-bottom overhaul of everything from workstations to lighting. But illness and injury from computers is an all-too-real problem that's costing workers their health, while government loses productivity and tax dollars.

"Poor ergonomics is a significant issue in the workplace," said Hank Austin, senior vice president for ErgoTeam, a consulting firm specializing in ergonomics. "People working with computers can develop a wide range of problems that affect every part of the body."

It's not just happening in high-stress work situations, but in any government agency with computers. For example, nearly 96 percent of public employees who are members of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) use computers or technology equipment at work. Of those, 26 percent have developed health problems using computer-related equipment.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that more than 600,000 workers suffered serious workplace injuries caused by ergonomic hazards in 1999, the most recent year for statistics. The National Academy of Sciences puts the injuries from repetitive stress at 1 million annually.

Neither government agency breaks down the number of injuries due directly to computer use, but in 1999 the BLS reported about 28,000 cases of carpal tunnel syndrome, which is often related to computers. The debilitating condition, which can occur over years, is also one of the most costly. Because so many people with carpal tunnel receive surgery, it is the leading cause of lost workdays, and the average cost is more than $13,000 per case. But ergonomic experts say the true cost is triple that amount.

Workplace Design

Austin has nearly 20 years of experience in the field of ergonomics and worker safety. To spot ergonomic troubles in any office, he suggests taking a look at the workers. "See how many are rubbing their wrists, how many have small pillows behind their backs while they sit. That will begin to give you an idea of the ergonomic conditions," he said.

Wrists and backs aren't all that hurt when workers use computers -- vision blurs, and hips, thighs and even ankles throb with pain. Less obvious problems with poor computer ergonomics include what Austin calls "psycho-social issues," which arise when workers are in constant discomfort or pain. The psychological effect of poor ergonomics can be especially acute for workers in customer service, or those who feel they have little control over their situation.

"The impact can start with lost workdays as workers stay home to recuperate mentally and physically," Austin said. The problems can grow into morale issues and eventually lead to valued employees quitting their jobs. Unfortunately, managers are often the last to realize what's going on because workers are reluctant to complain about a sore wrist or fatigue from using a computer. Meanwhile, public-sector employees report more stress and stress-related illnesses today than they did 25 years ago, according to the AFT.

Most people think poorly designed keyboards or computer monitors that are too high, too low or too close to the workers are causes. Nonadjustable chairs and desks also are reasons workers suffer while using computers. Other factors that contribute include poor lighting and ventilation.

Tod Newcombe  |  Features Editor