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When Work Not Only Tires But Hurts — And Even Injures

I’m writing this in an old executive-style office chair discarded during a departmental move during a past sentence I served in biotech. It’s a sturdy, reasonably attractive piece of leather; its main value, though, is in the range of its height adjustment, which exceeds that of most modern office furniture. I am not exceedingly tall, but quite so for a woman and it took me months of trial and error to find the right chair for me. Once I was able to, I wasn’t able to let it go…evidently. I do most of my writing in a slightly reclined position. On the left arm of the chair, I have taped an ergoBeadsÔ wrist rest that would normally sit in front of the keyboard. Despite its unsightly appearance, when I am using the mouse (yes I am a lefty), my forearm and elbow can rest against beads and not the arm, which was beginning to pinch the nerves in my ulnar.

Opposite me is a large, two-piece oak desk from Ethan Allen, purchased when my salary from big pharma was steady and predictable. It’s not one of those desks with myriad drawers – I dislike the look from a distance. At 48 inches long, the main section acts as my command central. I work using two computers. The one in front of me is my main computer. It is a laptop, which sits a comfortable arms’ length from me, into which I plug a full sized keyboard and a first generation Kensington track ball mouse. To the laptop’s right is a desk top computer and a 23” monitor, which I use for research so I needn’t toggle back and forth from Microsoft Word to the Internet. To the laptop’s left is an old iPod sitting in its own docking station and is precisely 2 inches from the front of the desk.

One feature of this desk I fell in love with is its footrest, onto which I prop two colorful Afghan pillows purchased from Ikea years ago when one was within driving distance. With my legs elevated, I am less mindful of them, which is a good thing. When my feet were touching the floor, this was both awkward and caused immediate pain in my right hip.

Prior to beginning work each day, I slip my hands and wrists into braces that lock in place with the handy use of three strips of Velcro.

What is the point of this inventory? I suffer from repetitive strain injuries throughout both arms. And I’ve made myself a fully customized and customizable workstation, suitable for writing, bill-paying, and social networking in multiple positions. All these are made from inexpensive or found materials, or improvised and adapted from things I already owned. As a result, I live mostly pain-free, and when pains arise, I’ve got plenty of things I can adjust. So although some ergonomic workstations cost in the thousands and even tens of thousands of dollars, none of that expense is necessary if you:

  • Keep in mind a few basic principles
  • Know how or learn how to improvise
  • Remember that your body, your habits, your needs and your comfort determine the form of your workspace, not the other way round

Applying the Same Logic to Homesteading

Of course, ergonomics is a broad subject. The prevalence among office workers and cashiers of Repetitive Strain Injuries – carpal tunnel syndrome among others – has brought attention to those risks for some. For assembly line workers – three times more likely than keyboard operators to develop carpal tunnel or other RSIs, they are nothing new. Other repetitive strain injuries from physical labor, from housemaid’s knee to tennis elbow to writer’s cramp, have become enshrined in the language.

Perhaps the most famous labor struggle over harmful ergonomics in recent history was the battle against “el cortito”. The short-handled hoe also known as “el brazo del Diablo,” or the Devil’s arm, enforced with a malicious literalness the phrase “stoop labor.” It caused pain almost immediately, and produced lifelong back injuries.

Equipment considered the most modern and essential, such as the chainsaw, can cause RSIs by vibration. Other risks posed by agriculture, homesteading and construction include heavy lifting and other straining exertions, working in the cold and long-held awkward, or outright painful postures, are more common in agriculture than in any other labor sector. Among interior household tasks, sewing and cleaning — any work involving repetitive or forceful use of the hands — can produce RSIs.

If you’re still tied to more sedentary work and doing the more strenuous work for your new home (in preparation for life off the grid) primarily on weekends or even less frequently, that too can make you more injury-prone. Personal health factors such as smoking, overweight, arthritis, neuropathy, and generally being out of shape also increase risk.

RSIs can be difficult to treat, and many cause permanent damage. The best defense against them is paying attention to your body. The notion that unearned suffering is redemptive may apply in the spiritual realm, but in the physical realm unmitigated suffering is simply destructive. You owe it to yourself and those you love and who may depend on you to take corrective steps upon any of the warning signs:

  • Pain from a particular task, motion or position
  • Tingling, numbness or cold at joints
  • Loss of grip, strength or range of motion
  • Clumsiness or loss of coordination
  • Pain that wakes you or interferes with sleep
  • Stiffness, tightness, soreness, tenderness anywhere through the arms, neck or back

If you are in recovery from an RSI, or not sure about any of the above symptoms, try this test: when performing a task you suspect may be injuring you, freeze upon feeling anything – good, bad or indifferent – in the possible problem area. Don’t clench, but hold the position. You may find that that little tingle you were brushing off suddenly blossoms into pain; our brain can be very ingenious at masking such things.

And Then What?

Although I would love to tell you there is some magic that will take your pain away, temporarily or permanently, clearly I cannot. It took me several months to adapt my workstation to allow me to sit on my ever-widening butt for up to nine hours a day to write. My husband, who also served his time in big pharma, today is a farmer. For purposes of this article, I asked him for advice when he starts to hurt out there. His answer was short and initially annoyed me. I was expecting something more detailed. He said:

“I never pull something out of a tree that I can’t reach easily. If I can’t reach it, I use a pole (which he fashioned himself). I never stretch to reach something; instead I move closer to it. If I feel pain, I stop what I am doing and move until I stop hurting. When I get tired, wherever I am on the farm, I lie down under a tree and take a nap.”

Returning to our original theme of frugality, let me quote an old country saying:

“Use it up.

Wear it out.

Make it do

Or do without.”

While this may apply to the ingenuity with which we can address ergonomic problems, we really should not apply it to our bodies — we do not want to do without them before the Lord’s appointed time. As Hillel the Elder reminds us, if we are made in the image of God, it is our duty to take all due care of the gift of that image.

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