Working With Laptops Safely

Foreward by Puleng Moshele
PhD student in Industrial Hygiene at the University of Minnesota

With the Coronavirus proceeding to spread, numerous organizations are requesting that their representatives telecommute. As a student, I found myself spending numerous hours on my desk shuffling between academics and work. Unfortunately, not every person has a home office or committed work area that they can use to set up their PC hardware effectively. This problem is common among many of my friends and colleagues, in fact I will not be surprised if in a few months there is an increase in ergonomic related cases.

The science of ergonomics studies and evaluates a full range of tasks including, but not limited to, lifting, holding, pushing, walking, and reaching. I had the opportunity to learn about ergonomics during my master’s program under Steve Gutmann. Steve is a Certified Professional Ergonomist (CPE) and a Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH). He has over 30 years of experience as a health and safety professional in industry and consulting.

I asked Steve to provide tips about using computers and working from home and I hope his advice will help us navigate this challenging time. Enjoy!

Working With Laptops Safely

Steve Gutmann, MS CPE CIH FAIHA

Nine months ago, we never expected a virus would change our lives so much as SARS CoV-2 has. Because of it, we have had to adapt every aspect of our lives, including wearing masks in public and social distancing, limiting in-store shopping, limiting gatherings with others and attending class online. One of the unexpected consequences has been an increase of discomfort or even strains from prolonged use of laptops in less than ideal conditions.

Incorrect posture, sitting at a desk that is too high.

The illustration at right is a prime example of what some of us do with laptops. We set the laptop on a desk or table that’s too high, causing us to lean forward from the chair backrest, tilt hour heads forward and rest our forearms on the sharp edge of the desk/table.

Others may set the laptop in one’s laps which may improve seated comfort, but accentuates tilting the head forward and bending the wrists backward.

So, what is a user to do? One option is to use a desk set at a good height for the user and a separate monitor and keyboard are an option. But it can get expensive and you may not have the room. Another and more feasible option is to adapt the work area you have.

Here are a few tips that may work for you:

  • Raise the back edge of the laptop so the keyboard is tilted. The key is to find the position where your hands and forearms are aligned. Another advantage is this raises the screen to improve head and neck posture.
  • Place the laptop on a stand and use a separate keyboard and mouse. These are fairly inexpensive and it gives a lot more flexibility of how you can set it up. It also raises the screen and allows the keyboard and mouse to be set where they are more comfortable to use.
  • If you are using a laptop away from a desk and on your lap, place something underneath the laptop to provide a better posture. The goal is to get better alignment of the hands and forearms. You may also want to support the feet with a footrest so the knees and hips are aligned.
  • Consider using another monitor to view the computer work. An easy way to do this is to hook up your laptop to a television, if you have one. That will allow you to sit with the head and neck in a more neutral position.
  • Remember, the best posture is the next posture. Get up and move around on a regular basis. If you are in a class or meeting and don’t need to use the keyboard and mouse, stand up.

So, as we progress through these challenging times, a few simple tricks can make a big difference in your comfort.  You may even come up with a few of your own. 

The key is to be adaptable and try, whenever you can to find those neutral postures that help you feel better.

Example of using neutral postures at a seated workstation