It wasn’t too long ago that you needed to be in your office to receive calls and at your desk to do most of your work. Technology, however, is changing that, enabling us to do more in more places. Thanks to smaller and lighter tools such as cell phones and personal digital assistants (PDAs), we can work while we’re traveling, visiting a local coffee shop, or walking the plant floor or construction site.

An emerging drawback from using smaller and smaller tools, however, has to do with ergonomics. Safety and health professionals who have had any ergonomics training know that bigger, more open hand grips are better than tight, closed pinch grips, and bigger hand movements are usually better than small or tiny hand movements. Yet most of the electronic tools that we now use require these smaller, tighter postures.

Cell phone dilemmas

The old-fashioned telephone that many people have all but abandoned was designed to fit comfortably in the hand. Replace this with cell phones and you have an entirely different grip. Trying to hold an older handset between your ear and shoulder required trying to hold an object about three inches wide and three inches deep. Now, if you try this with a cell phone, you are putting your body into an even worse alignment since cell phones are usually much smaller.

Telephone headsets have always been a good option for individuals who spend long periods on the phone, but with cell phones these separate headsets are even more important when talking “hands free.” A new disorder called “cellular phone neck” is caused by wedging the phone between your ear and shoulder. Holding a cell phone the traditional way allows you to avoid discomfort as you change hands (and ears) frequently. This gives the muscles on each side of your body a chance to rest while the other side is being used.

Cell phones also usually have very small number pads that can be difficult for individuals with large fingers or long fingernails to use accurately. Some people used the end of a pencil in the past to dial the old-fashioned rotary phones. This may also be an option for some cell phone users, although the keypads are likely not as sturdy as standard desk phones, so extra care would be needed.

There is also the possibility for greater strain on your fingers when they try to perform small movements such as punching or typing numbers or letters on these small keypads. One option is to pre-program as many numbers as possible into the phone to reduce the amount of dialing (pushing) required. Some phones also have the option of being set up to dial on voice commands.

PDA problems

Some cell phones also function as PDAs. Many people only use them a few times a day, which would probably not lead to an injury. Frequent users of a stand-alone PDA as well as users of PDA-cell phone combination units, however, may experience repetitive motion type injuries.

First, most of the PDAs on the market use a small stylus, approximately 4 mm in diameter. The stylus causes the user to keep their hand in a pinch grip and is worse to use for long times than even a standard pencil or pen. These smooth, narrow diameter “sticks” require firm pinching and heavy pressure, which can cause neck, shoulder, forearm or hand problems.

A standard pencil cushion may fit on the stylus, but then the stylus will not fit into the PDA where it is stored. A better option is a regular pencil-sized stylus, available in most office supply stores. These often double as a real pen. These are often designed with a much wider barrel and are intended to be more comfortable to use. If these pen-like styluses are still too narrow to be held comfortably, a cushion can be added.

PDAs also either have a very small keyboard or rely on an onscreen keyboard that is activated by the hunt-and-peck method using the stylus. Most PDAs can receive text when the user “writes” symbols for each letter on the screen. There is usually a very small work area for these tasks — approximately 55 mm x 20 mm (smaller than a stick of gum!). Smaller hand movements mean more stress.

Find a shortcut

If you frequently enter large amounts of information directly into your PDA, learn to use whatever shortcuts you can. Some PDA programs have great cut, copy and paste commands that can save time and finger strain. Consider buying one of the many keyboards that attach to PDAs. These will give your hands a bigger area to work with and result in less stress (and probably greater input as well). Some of these keyboards are very thin and flexible and can even be rolled up and easily carried.

If you use your PDA outside or in dimly lit areas, be careful to have the best screen and the right resolution for your application. Some PDAs have monochrome screens (better for outdoors) and some have better backlights than others (better for dimly lit areas). Some also have higher resolution than others, which is important if you are trying to read standards or other written materials.

As technology advances and your electronic tools get smaller and smaller, you are likely to see the occurrence of repetitive strain-related hand injuries increase. Even as your devices get smaller, you can help prevent injury by working “bigger” — make your screen bigger, work on bigger keyboards and use the widest writing instruments practical.

The appeal of smaller technology is enticing, but you need to think about what the tradeoffs are and how you can reach a compromise that helps you do what safety and health professionals do best — prevent injury.

SIDEBAR: Text messaging troubles

Cell phones often serve as other communication devices such as two-way pagers and text messengers. As the popularity of text messaging grows, so could the occurrence of repetitive strain injuries.

A new disorder related to this technology wave is called text message injury (TMI), caused by repeatedly using the thumb to enter data. Text message users typically use the thumb to type the message while supporting the phone with the index finger. The hundreds of tiny movements cause blood not to circulate as it should, which could lead to injury over time, such as arthritis at the joint or inflammation at the tendons.

Solutions: Avoid prolonged sessions (take a break every half-hour or so); use both thumbs to help distribute the strain; don’t press the keys so hard; use a phone that fits the size of your hand.