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Everyone at our place of work uses laptops rather than desktops because of their portability. Recently a few employees have taken to using a combo of laptop stand, keyboard and mouse, citing ergonomic problems.

What problems can be caused by extended laptop use, and what is the best way to counteract those problems?

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    What is your question, again? What changes do you want to promote in your workplace? Why are you asking us instead of your co-workers (who are much more knowledgeable about the ergonomics of their workplace than any of us)? – Deer Hunter May 15 '13 at 13:42
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    ...what problems? Like, it seems that whatever individuals who are having issues, have taken steps to resolve them. – acolyte May 15 '13 at 14:00
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    The question is also pretty close to being a double post with the chair question. What I'm getting is that the OP is concerned about ergonomics - great! After that I'm not sure what the workplace problem really is. – MrFox May 15 '13 at 14:01
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    This is a common problem in the workplace. The most common workplace injury in an office situation is Repetitive motion injuries that can be prevented/mitigated through proper ergonomics. This is absolutely on topic. – IDrinkandIKnowThings May 17 '13 at 12:44
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    @Neuro - Please read this Meta post Comments are not for answers or semi answers. – IDrinkandIKnowThings May 17 '13 at 12:46
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From what I've seen (I'm no medical professional), the most typical issues come from the basic issue of doing just about anything repetitive and static for a long duration with not enough breaks. Several of these issues are probably common to any form of long computer use:

  • Wrist issues - from typing in an improper position, and from any limitations imposed by the particular laptop.
  • Neck/shoulder issues - from the monitor not being aligned well with the human using it.
  • Eye strain - staring at lit surfaces for hours on end are just not what humans evolved for.
  • Leg/hip issues - from sitting, sometimes in bad chairs, for hours on end.
  • Just not moving around enough - I don't care if you sit in a rejuvenating yoga pose for 8 hours - being static for really long periods of time is not a good plan for humans.

The trick with ergonomics is that it's not one size fits all. Humans are built in all sorts of variations. So are laptops, chairs, keyboards, monitors, and desks. Also, any previous physical issue, or lack of good posture while working can be exacerbated by prolonged strain of any sort.

IMO - medicine and just about anything relating to physical health is an art, not a science, and if you really want comprehensive advice - always see a doctor... but a sanity-building checklist with no consideration of budget might include:

  • Hire true ergonomic experts - there are businesses that consult on this, and who will work with each individual in your office to figure out the right conditions for them. A tall person is different from a shorter person, a person with eye strain is different with a person with tennis elbow, a person who works on the laptop in between meetings is different from a person who sits on the laptop all day while simultaneously on conference calls.

  • Invest in the right equipment for the right person - don't self-diagnose, and don't necessarily buy the same super-awesome high end whatever for everyone - this is where expert advice really helps.

  • Figure out a policy for repeating as necessary - people change, technology changes, usage changes - figure out how often you'll be inviting the experts back - don't make it a one-time thing.

  • Also get advice in overall conditions that affect the group - lighting, air quality, temperature - things you all have to share.

  • Create a culture of holistic health - taking breaks, making sure sure small pains are addressed before they are big issues, avoid a culture of complaining and suffering in favor of a culture of "if something is wrong, let's fix it".

  • Determine any off-site, out of office policies - are you willing to provide ergonomic support out of office? At home? At other sites? No one's budget is infinite, so where do you draw the line?

  • Figure out at what point you will require offical medial notice. Ergonomics is generally taken to mean setting up an office environment that prevents injury. So if a pre-existing employee health condition adds to the cost of ergnomic measures, is that a disability that requires medical verifiation? Figure out a policy so you don't end up enforcing the rules randomly.

There's really is never a "perfect" case. Every office I've worked in has tried to at least attempt some humane working conditions, but there's always a point where something for someone is too expensive without a serious justification. And there's a balancing act of universal purchases to save money and administration effort vs. getting the right thing for the right person.

A good office culture will solve much of that - giving people enough flex to swap and trade to get the right balance will usually do it. For example - having some variety of keyboards, trays, mice, monitors, headsets, etc - and finding a way to balance it out.

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There can be a few possible outcomes from doing this depending on what your staff are currently using.

If you have BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) then standards would need to be set in place by speaking to Occupational Health who are able to provide advice and assistance with this. If you are not part of a larger corporation that has a H&S Department then there are possibilities that there may be local advisors who you can use for the one off advice most probably for a small fee.

If you are part of a larger company then you may have a H&S Department who will be able to assist you.

Most Laptops usually have smaller screens but as you class it as a "heavy laptop" my guess is this is more of a Desktop Replacement then a normal sized laptop. It is possible to connect a screen, mouse and keyboard using various inputs/outputs on the device as I take it some of your staff have already done. By doing this you would need to looking at providing a cable to connect the laptop to a screen. A usb mouse & keyboard. Then at the end of the day everything is disconnected and the staff are free to take the laptop away. By doing this you bypass the issues of using a laptop in the work place as they would still be using the same devices as a desktop PC would require.

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In addition to the excellent answer by bethlakshmi, I would like to point out that in the UK, Heath and Safety regulations make no distinction between laptops and desktops if they are used for long periods of time, they are both considered Display Screen Equipment:

Display Screen Equipment (DSE) is a device or equipment that has an alphanumeric or graphic display screen, regardless of the display process involved; it includes both conventional display screens and those used in emerging technologies such as laptops, touch-screens and other similar devices.

If you are sat in front of a screen for long periods of the day then in the UK you are classed as a DSE worker and your employer is expected to provide adequate training and equipment for that role.

From the Display Screen Equipment FAQ:

How do the Regulations apply to work with laptops or other portable DSE?

Answer: Portable DSE such as laptops and handheld devices are subject to the Regulations if in prolonged use for work purposes. People who habitually use portable DSE should be trained in how to minimise risks, for example by sitting comfortably, angling the screen so it is easy to read and taking frequent breaks. Wherever possible, portable DSE should be placed on a firm surface at a comfortable height. Where portables are in prolonged use at the user's main place of work, additional steps can be taken to reduce risks, e g by using a docking station.

I would highly recommend that all DSE workers read the UK Health and Safety Executive advice and position your monitor such that the top of your monitor is at eye level (Working with VDUs 740k pdf). This improved my working environment immensely, but did require both a docking station, an external keyboard and mouse and a platform to raise the docking station to a suitable height.

used without permission, but with attribution

I would also highly recommend adding a second monitor to any desk where a laptop is the primary computer. The cost of a large, high resolution screen on a laptop can be excessive, but a laptop with a cheaper/smaller screen plus a large screen at your desk can be a cost effective solution for maximising productivity, especially when you can buy 22" full-HD screen for well under £100 ($150) in the UK at the moment.

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  • Completely off-topic, but it pleases me to know that "Health and Safety" is a real thing in the UK, as it is used so often in Doctor Who and Torchwood. – Dave Johnson May 20 '13 at 13:55
  • @DaveJohnson - It is often the butt of jokes, but actually most H&S regulation is common sense and well thought out. The tabloids love a good Heath and safety gone mad story but in truth these stories are about as realistic as Torchwood. – Mark Booth May 20 '13 at 14:02

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