Office ergonomics

March 1, 2005
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Split keyboards are those keyboards that do just that — the keys of the standard keyboard are divided into two, or split, and typically they are located on separate adjustable panels. Very often, employers purchase these keyboards for their employees in hope of providing an ergonomically correct workstation. While their intentions may be good, one size does not fit all when it comes to ergonomics, and, similarly, one type of fix — i.e., the addition of a split keyboard to address issues with the wrist — will not solve everyone’s problems.

Unnatural position

The first split keyboard was invented in 1926 by Klockenberg, who noticed that the keyboard layout forced users to put their hands in an unnatural position that eventually led to discomfort or injury. Apple introduced a split keyboard in the early 1990s, and Microsoft introduced the Microsoft Natural Keyboard in 1994.

More and more, split keyboards are purchased in an attempt to protect employees from repetitive-motion type injuries. There are various types of such devices — everything from a fold-up keyboard that allows users to type vertically to a split keyboard that rests on the arms of a chair. These keyboards usually (but not always) work much the same as standard keyboards, but with the split keyboard design the users’ wrists are more likely to stay in a neutral position instead of deviating outwards or inwards.

The keys on standard keyboards are aligned very close together and in a straight line. This causes some users to move their wrists in a way that causes ulnar deviation. This means that the wrist is bending towards the little finger. If you look down on your hands while typing and see the skin where your hand joins your arm bunching up, you are displaying ulnar deviation. Research suggests that wrist deviations from a neutral position increase the likelihood of a user developing carpal tunnel syndrome, as when the hand and wrist are in this position of ulnar deviation.

Reshaping the standard

Most common split keyboards reshape the standard keyboard and usually make it more adjustable, all while keeping the same familiar layout of keys. The lower priced split keyboards usually have an open space between the two halves of the board and some angling of the keys. The next stage up are adjustable split keyboards that allow the user to change the horizontal split of the keyboard and often the angling as well. There are also split keyboards that are more sculpted to match how a user’s hands normally move, which results in the fingers having to move around less.

Some other types of split keyboards are available that are not commonly seen in most workplaces. One such board is called the DataHand, which looks like a mold taken from two hand prints. This model is very different from other split keyboards and consists of a combination of keys and switches.

One study conducted in 1995 failed to find any substantial benefits of a fixed split keyboard over a traditional keyboard (in fact, in this same test, typing speed actually went down when the split keyboard was used), but other studies have shown benefits. For some people, split keyboards may be the only way they can work without pain. Even if productivity is down, in these cases, productivity could be zero otherwise. One study found that the main reason people purchase split keyboards in the first place is because they have an existing injury or pain. The second most popular reason people select these boards seems to be in the hope of preventing injury from occurring to begin with.

The most important thing to remember is that simply purchasing a split keyboard is not by itself going to solve the problem of repetitive-motion type injuries. With every aspect of the workstation, each piece must be adjusted for the particular user and the user must be trained in its proper use. The split keyboard, if used correctly, will only help with one kind of problem. It’s not going to prevent other types of injuries or stop them from getting worse.

Will it work?

You should also be sure that any new keyboard purchased is going to fit in the existing work area and work in conjunction with other equipment. If the new split keyboard is not going to fit on the keyboard tray and the user is now forced to place the keyboard on top of the desk, physical problems might now be transferred from the wrist to the shoulders or another part of the body. Split keyboards often also cause the user to type with their arms slightly away from the sides of their body, which can cause stress on the upper arms, upper back and shoulders. Be careful that one fix does not cause another problem.

With any new piece of equipment or furniture, it is highly recommended that a trial period be established. Try to purchase these keyboards from vendors or manufacturers that will either loan you a board for the user to try out before you purchase or will accept returns or exchanges on the board if it doesn’t work well for the user. Also, be sure to request that the user try out the new board for a period of time before deciding if he or she doesn’t like it. In many cases, these keyboards will take some getting used to.

There are many different styles of split keyboards available on the market. The introduction of new equipment is likely to be met with greater enthusiasm if the user has a say in selecting it, so try to let the individuals experiment with several different split keyboards if possible before making a final decision.

Not for everyone

Remember, split keyboards are not for everyone and will not help with all of the aches and pains that have come to be associated with working at a computer. If you do decide to give one a try, be sure to remember that the split keyboard is not an “end-all” solution — it’s only going to address part of your concerns of working at a computer for extended periods of time.

SIDEBAR: 8 tips for healthy keyboard usage

1) Use a light touch when typing, using the minimum amount of force necessary to depress the keys. Don’t bang on the keyboard.

2) Keep your wrists in a neutral (straight) position — not bent up or down.

3) Keep your elbows at a slightly open angle — 90 degrees or greater to avoid nerve compression.

4) Keep your shoulders relaxed and your elbows at your side. Try raising your chair instead of your shoulders to reach the keyboard.

5) Don't use wrist rests or arm rests while typing — only while resting.

6) Stay centered on the lettered part of the keyboard. Keyboards aren't symmetrical — letter keys are on the left.

7) Consider using a voice recognition software program.

8) Consider using keyboard shortcuts or macros to repeat common tasks.

Source: www.healthycomputing.com

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