The occupational hazards of handling information

Posted on September 17, 2010 · Posted in Impact and Symptoms

Handling stuff has always carried occupational health risks. Back in previous centuries it was physical stuff: if you worked in a coal mine your lungs would get shot; if you lifted product (“16 tons”), your back was at risk; if you dipped matches you’d be poisoned outright… and even dealing with books and ledgers involved the stereotypical “scholarly stoop” or myopic eyes.

In this new century the stuff that matters is information, which is odorless, weightless, and non-toxic; you’d think there would be no hazards associated with its handling. And yet, there are distinct health issues related to Information Work.

The best known culprits are repetitive stress injury (RSI) from typing, and lower back pain from sitting immobile before a screen. These are quite common and can be seriously harmful; some people lose the use of their hands completely for long periods of time, and it can happen without warning. Preventive solutions are simple – ergonomic chairs and workstation setup, wrist support at the keyboard, and of course taking frequent breaks to stretch and rest one’s muscles. Unfortunately many people don’t do this until it is too late; if I were a boy scout I could get my “good deed” credits just from all the times I  tell people to sit correctly. It’s incredible how contorted and unhealthy people’s positions can be – some sink down in their low chairs while looking up at the screen, a pose that reminds me of the position of the “Mayan astronaut” from Palenque…

Then there are the people who insist on using LCD screens at non-optimal resolutions, making the image fuzzy to the detriment of their eyes; and there are those who tote heavy laptops without resorting to a backpack.

But most intriguing, though far from fully understood yet, is the damage to our brains from processing too much information. We’ve known for a while that information overload affects mental acuity in a variety of ways – temporarily; but whether it caused permanent physical changes to the brain’s hardware was unclear. Recent research seems to suggest that such changes actually might occur, as the brain “rewires” itself in response to the hectic information processing mode of today. This is the stuff of Nicholas Carr’s famous article  “Is Google making us stupid?” and his book “The shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains” which I plan to grab in my next Amazon order…

So, next time you have a few tons to lift, use your knees (or a fork lift); and next time you log onto your computer, be just as careful!