As children start spending more time on computers, experts say they might be putting themselves at risk of repetitive stress injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome, which could show up as early as their teenage years.

But an innovative ergonomics program at Elizabeth Blackwell Elementary School in Sammamish, Wash., is trying to prevent that by teaching students to take breaks during long computer sessions, use correct posture to reduce strain on the upper body, and exercise fatigued muscles.

“Get TechFit!” was designed by Diane Tien, the school’s instructional technology assistant, with help from some of the country’s leading children ergonomists. School officials say it’s one of the only such programs in the nation aimed at children.

Ergonomics programs are important in the workplace because repetitive stress injuries cost companies money and time. But experts say that without increased education for children, the wave of computer-related injuries that hit adults in the mid-1990s may occur next in children.

“I think all the problems that you’ve seen in adults, you can see mirrored in children,” said Dan Eisman, co-founder of HealthyComputing.com, an ergonomics resource web site. “Now they’re starting to work on computers at 5, and by the time they are 9 and 10, they start having problems.”

These problems might include back, neck, and arm pain; wrist problems such as carpal tunnel syndrome; and vision problems that lead to blurriness, headaches, and possibly an earlier onset of nearsightedness, said Eisman.

“We know kids are experiencing problems,” said Alan Hedge, a professor of ergonomics at Cornell University and one of the first children ergonomists.

Although there is little ergonomics research on children, current research on adults gives some insight into why children might be at risk.

Peter Johnson, a professor at the University of Washington, has studied why women are injured at the workplace more often than men. Johnson found that computers are better designed for men, who have broader shoulders and thicker wrists. Women must extend their wrists and arms unnaturally to type and move the mouse.

“If you’re a small-wristed child, you will be in greater extension,” Johnson said, increasing the risk of injury.

Children often have to use equipment designed for adults or machines that must accommodate many different-sized children.

“The problem is [schools] buy everything in bulk,” Eisman said. “That doesn’t really allow for a good variety.”

And because parents and schools often cannot afford the smaller desks, miniature keyboards, and adjustable chairs that increase ergonomic safety, they tend to ignore the problem altogether.

But being sensitive to ergonomics “doesn’t have to be expensive,” Hedge said.

Small, inexpensive changes, such as using a pillow as support for the lower back or a crate as a footrest, can make a big difference in a child’s health, Hedge said.

The goal of “Get TechFit!,” which is taught for one week out of the school year, is to teach children how to change their environments to fit them, regardless of where they are or what is around them, Tien said.

“It isn’t so much that [the students] have to learn what the definition of ergonomics is,” Tien said while describing the program’s philosophy. “They have to understand their own physical needs first.”

In gym class, students learn exercises to ease tension and relieve weary muscles. To learn correct posture, the students use sand-filled balls placed on their heads to simulate the pressure their heads put on their backs.

“When you sit like this,” said second-grader Victoria Roadifer as she slouched down in her seat, “it’s hard to hold your head and it kind of hurts your back. It’s easier to hold it on your head when you sit up straight.”

Fifth-graders use math skills to find the correct angles for arms, wrists, and legs when using computers. They use these angles to create ergonomically safe workstations for second-graders.

The program also increases parental awareness, which often leads to safer computer use at home.

Fifth-grader Alysha Greig even taught her mother a lesson when she saw her mom using a laptop on her bed with “one leg on the bed and one leg off,” she said. She reminded her mother to sit with both feet on the floor and use correct posture.

“I’m telling her all this stuff about ergonomics,” she said proudly.

Related links:
Elizabeth Blackwell Elementary School
http://wwwbla.lkwash.wednet.edu/Elizabet.htm

HealthyComputing.com Inc.
http://www.healthycomputing.com

Cornell University Ergonomics Web Site
http://ergo.human.cornell.edu