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Ask the Expert: Ergonomic Tips for Virtual Conference Attendees

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This year, AIHce EXP will be held in person again, but not everyone is able to make the trip to Nashville for the full three days of the conference, much less the additional days set aside for professional development courses. Many virtual AIHce attendees will attend conference sessions from their home workstations. Gary Downey, an ergonomist with the North Carolina State University Ergonomics Center and a member of AIHA’s Ergonomics Committee, shared information that can help people remotely attending the conference follow proper ergonomic practices.

According to Downey, ergonomists follow the principle of fitting tasks to people. He explained that this fit can be physical, “like we think of with office chairs or keyboard trays,” or cognitive, “like making sure we present the correct message in an understandable way at the correct time.” A common example of cognitive ergonomics is the window that pops up on your computer screen when you try to delete a file, asking if you’re sure you want to delete the item. If you’re preparing to attend AIHce EXP virtually, it will help you to consider both physical and cognitive ergonomics.

The Ideal Workstation

“An ideal home workstation is adjustable,” said Downey. He added that it starts with a padded chair that can be adjusted in height so that your thighs are parallel to the floor and your back is either straight or reclined at an angle of no more than 100 degrees. If your chair is not adjustable or your legs are too short to reach the floor, Downey suggested that you support your legs with a footrest, positioned so that your ankles are in front of your knees. “Make sure you have plenty of clearance for your legs, too,” he added.

Next, Downey describes the ideal workstation as having not only a laptop computer but also an external monitor, keyboard, and mouse. “The external keyboard and mouse are a must so that you can adjust your monitor independently from the keyboard and mouse," he said. The keyboard and mouse should be placed directly in front of you in such a way that your elbow is angled about 90 degrees and your wrists are straight when using the devices. The monitor should be directly in front of you, with its top level with your eye and at arm’s length away; Downey encourages you to “tweak this slightly if you find yourself squinting or leaning closer to it.”

Avoid glare on your screen caused by direct light, such as by placing your monitor perpendicular to windows. This will also allow you to see outside. Finally, if you plan on taking notes, transcribing, or referring to printed materials while watching conference sessions, Downey encourages using a document holder placed in front of you between the keyboard and monitor, if possible, to keep your neck in a neutral position.

It's often necessary to maintain a home workstation, but your home environment may offer other ways for you to view the conference comfortably. For example, you can hook your laptop to a TV to attend sessions that don’t involve much audience participation or watch sessions from a sun porch or even outside (while being sure to avoid glare).

Modifying Your Workstation

Specially designed ergonomic office equipment isn’t always available for people working from home, but you can use everyday items to make your workstation more ergonomic. Downey suggests using textbooks and reams of paper to raise monitors, throw pillows and rolled-up towels for back support, and countertops or ironing boards in place of standing desks.

Additionally, people who have specific physical conditions, disabilities, or existing musculoskeletal disorders may have additional ergonomic concerns—to address them, Downey advises them to remember the guiding ergonomic principle of fitting the task to the person. For example, if you wear bifocals, you might lower your monitor slightly to read the upper portions of the screen without tilting your head back or invest in prescription computer glasses.

Downey suggested a series of videos produced at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic through a collaboration between AIHA and the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society as a resource for people modifying their home working environments. For people with disabilities, the Job Accommodation Network website lists assistive technology projects within each U.S. state, which can provide ergonomics equipment and expertise.

Cognitive Ergonomics

To reduce your cognitive load while attending the conference, Downey recommended that you avoid multitasking—which, he said, humans are bad at, anyways. Don’t try to check your emails and attend a session at the same time.

Find ways to make the conference fun, get your mind "in the zone," and even feel like you were in Nashville yourself. Downey’s suggestions include syncing your schedule to the Central time zone, where Nashville is located, even for activities that aren’t related to the conference. As Nashville is famous for its music and food, you can also play country music and eat “local” Nashville cuisine. Food and drink associated with Nashville include sweet tea, meat and three (your choice of meat and three side dishes), hot chicken (spicy fried chicken), and Goo-Goo clusters (chocolate-covered clusters of marshmallow nougat, caramel, and roasted peanuts). Participate in virtual conference social activities to be more connected with other attendees.

Taking Breaks

Physical and cognitive ergonomics aren’t mutually exclusive; both are improved simply by taking breaks. “Our bodies are designed to move,” said Downey. “Take advantage of the natural breaks at virtual conferences to move about a little—just like you would if you were there in person.”

When you attend a conference in person, you usually get up to walk between each session. As a virtual conference attendee, you can achieve a similar effect by walking to your mailbox or getting up to refill your water bottle—or, at least, standing up and changing position.

If you’re interested in learning more about ergonomics for attending virtual conferences, Downey recently discussed ergonomics with Penney Stanch, CIH, CSP, CPE, another Ergonomics Committee member, in a video for the AIHce EXP+ YouTube channel.

Abby Roberts is AIHA's Editorial Assistant for The Synergist magazine.

Thank you to our AIHce EXP 2023 sponsors: