Article Features Web Exclusive Kathy Espinoza

Preventing Tech-Related Injuries: Watch Out for Distractions

Kathy Espinoza is a board-certified professional ergonomist for Keenan, an insurance and brokerage firm. Espinoza can be reached at

Using laptop computers, tablets and smartphones is part of everyday work and home life. Technology connects us to information and each other. But it can take a toll in the form of eyestrain, back and neck pain, headaches and other — sometimes unexpected — ways.

Technology and Health Concerns: Cause and Effect 

What’s the harm in bringing a laptop to bed, watching a little TV, surfing the Internet before sleeping at night, or working on a tablet all day in a comfy chair, wearing earbuds with the volume turned up? The short answer is: It depends on how you’re doing it. A little knowledge is a powerful tool if you want to avoid unwanted effects like physical discomfort, injury and preventable accidents.

The following table summarizes some of the most common hazards of everyday digital activities.

Working for extended periods of time in a slouched position on a computer, laptop, tablet, smartphone or e-reader Recurrent headaches from a poor screen position, or straining to read small things, back pain from sitting in a chair that is poorly adjusted or from slouching, physical stiffness caused by sitting in one position without moving
Using earbuds or a Bluetooth headset Problems with hearing caused by overly loud volume, which at best damages and at worst destroys the sensitive sensory cells that carry information about sound to the brain. Such hearing problems range from tinnitus (ongoing ringing or buzzing noises in the ears) to earache and deafness.
Texting and/or excessive mouse use Pain at the base of the thumb from excessive wear and tear caused by overreaching and overuse
Walking, talking and texting simultaneously Slipping, tripping and falling
Using a laptop and/or watching TV in bed before sleeping Deteriorating sleep patterns that cause fatigue, anxiety and depression.

Technology Trade-Offs

Laptops, tablets, smartphones and other devices make it easier and more convenient to communicate and complete tasks, but using them can create new hazards. Being distracted is perhaps the sneakiest hazard of all.

Cell Phones and Safety Concerns

Cell phones are by far the most popular and widely used personal technology device on the planet, but their use is associated with accidents. Cell phones create distractions, and distractions cause accidents. The American Automobile Association estimates that driving while distracted is responsible for 25 percent of car accidents. According to Mark Edwards, director of traffic safety for the American Automobile Association, 25 to 50 percent of car accidents in America are the result of driver distraction. Texting and slowing down to look at another accident (“rubbernecking”) comprise 16 percent of all distraction-related cases. Many of these car accidents could have been easily avoided if drivers focused solely on driving and ignored distractions.

According to a study released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI), 80 percent of automobile accidents and 65 percent of near-accidents involve at least some form of driver distraction within three seconds of the crash or near-miss. The researchers at the NHTSA and VTTI provided exact statistics: Dialing a cell phone increased the risk of a car accident or near-accident by 2.8 times; and talking on a cell phone increased the risk of a car accident or near car accident by 1.3 times. The study concluded that text messaging on a cell phone was associated with the highest risk of all cell phone-related tasks. In fact, text messaging increases the risk of a car accident or near car accident by 23.2 times when compared to the car accident statistics for a nondistracted driver.

The use of cell phones while driving, including dialing and texting, has long been a safety concern for drivers. But a Carnegie Mellon study used brain imaging for the first time to document that listening alone reduces by 37 percent the amount of brain activity associated with driving. This can cause drivers to weave out of their lane, based on the performance of subjects using a driving simulator.

In addition, people who are distracted tend to take riskier behavior. A 2009 study conducted by the University of Alabama, Birmingham, used virtual reality software to simulate crosswalks. It found that drivers are not the only ones at risk. When crossing the road, distracted pedestrians are a hazard to themselves and to motorists. And it’s especially true for kids. The research, which appears in the medical journal Pediatrics, found that a child was more likely to be hit by a car while crossing the street if he was simultaneously chatting on his cell phone. Interestingly, the researchers found that all of the children in the study exhibited more risky behavior when they attempted to cross the street while talking on cell phones:

  • 43 percent were more likely to be hit by a car or have a “close call” when on the cell phone;
  • Cell phone users began crossing the street later;
  • Children using cell phones gave themselves less time to make it across the street; and
  • While using a cell phone, children looked both ways before crossing 20 percent fewer times.

It’s also worth noting that cell phones emit radiation called radio frequency-electromagnetic radiation (RF-EMR), which is measured through the specific energy absorption rate in human tissue. While some studies claim that cell phones are safe to use, other studies raise the issue that question that not enough time has passed to determine whether cell phone use poses no risks from radiation. No one is 100 percent certain about the health effects, especially for children using cell phones. To minimize radiation danger from cell phones:

  • Use the speaker feature on the phone and hold it away from your head;
  • Limit childrens’ cell phone use whenever possible. When they are using it, encourage them to use the speaker feature or to text instead;
  • Don’t carry a cell phone on your body unless it’s turned off;
  • Don’t sleep with a cell phone next to your head; and
  • Buy cell phones that emit less radiation (for more information, visit the FCC website).

Excessive cell phone usage can also lead to migraine headaches, eye strain, blurred vision and dry eyes. Vision issues can be caused from reading the small text on the phone and holding the phone closer to the face than necessary. Reading texts can interfere with your eyes’ vergence, which is the movement that allows eyes to focus on objects both near and far. In moderation, your eyes will adapt, but prolonged sessions can bring on problems. To help mitigate these issues, take these steps:

  • If the message is too long or too small, print it to make it easier to read;
  • If the text seems small, try enlarging it. Many phones have settings that will allow you to do this; and
  • Save the majority of web browsing for a time when you have access to a normal-sized computer screen.

Headsets, Earbuds and Hearing Loss

The volume from earbuds or Bluetooth headsets can cause hearing loss. When the volume is too high and delivered directly into the inner ear, it damages the sensory cells in the inner ear. This damage can become permanent. To minimize these effects:

  • Be wise about the volume. People tend to turn up the volume to drown out background noise;
  • Use the speaker or hands-free option on your phone. It will protect your ears by distancing the sound source from the ear;
  • Switch ears often. Take breaks to rest the ears; and
  • If someone can hear the music from your earbuds when they are standing near you and you can’t hear them talking to you, it’s too loud.

In addition to hearing loss, earbuds have another disastrous consequence: accidents. While many argue that music helps to break up the monotony of work tasks and increase productivity, when used to block out the rest of the environment it becomes a safety liability. Earbuds can prevent you from hearing emergency warnings or communications from co-workers.

Physical Impacts of Tablets and E-Readers

Tablets and e-readers allow portable access to digital files, email and a variety of pastimes, including games, books and social networking. Health concerns with this technology stem more from an ergonomics perspective, which would include the weight of the device, location for viewing and awkward hand postures when holding it. Such devices become heavy when held for long periods of time and can quickly become a fatigue issue.

The simple act of holding an e-reader for extended periods can tire the smaller muscles in the hands and forearms. Holding most of the weight of the device in one hand and turning the page with the other hand creates even more strain. In addition, the sides of a tablet or e-reader are not soft, and holding them against the palms of the hands places pressure on the median nerve running through the palm of the hand.

The following steps can help to minimize these effects when using a tablet or e-reader.

  • When using the tablet, set the device on the table using a stand or bend the cover back so it is propped up facing you. Let the table, rather than your hand, support the weight of the device;
  • If you are reading with the device on your lap, prop it up on a pillow or two. Always try to set the device higher to avoid fatigue on the neck from looking down at the device. Posture follows vision, so getting the device on a higher surface will create better neck comfort;
  • Experiment with different cases and find one that is lightweight;
  • For typing, look for a case that comes with an external keyboard. Remember, the external keyboard will add weight to the tablet; and
  • For holding the device, consider a case with an elastic strap as part of the cover. This will allow you to slip your hand through it to hold in a more ergonomically comfortable position.       

An article in Scientific American reports that laptop or tablet use at bedtime may cause trouble in falling asleep, citing research showing that two hours of iPad use at maximum brightness was enough to suppress people’s normal nighttime release of melatonin, a key hormone that tells your body that it is night, helping to make you sleepy. Other research also finds that backlit and LED screens can negatively impact the ability to fall asleep and contribute to insomnia.

Avoid Slouching 

Poor posture is another effect of technology use. In the past, a hunched posture was typically considered part of the aging process and was seen mostly in the elderly. However, today it is widely seen in younger generations and comes from hours spent texting, using tablets and gaming with devices in the hand. It can cause severe back and neck pain and is associated with obesity from a sedentary lifestyle and a gradual decline in overall wellbeing.

To counter these effects and improve your posture:

  • Strengthen your back, postural muscles. Keep fit with a daily aerobic exercise program that includes weight lifting using muscles in the upper back region (these are the muscles that support posture);
  • Be aware of your posture. Stand and sit tall;
  • Set your computer to remind you to stand up and stretch every hour. Stand up when answering and talking on the phone to add variety to your extended sitting work habits;
  • Keep your tech devices at eye level as much as possible. Avoid ‘text’ neck by getting your device as close to eye level as possible;
  • Set your computer monitor at the correct height. If you have normal vision, set the top of the screen at eye level. If you wear bifocals, lower the screen toward the desktop so you can view the monitor from the bottom half of your glasses without bringing your chin up. If you use dual monitors, determine which one you use most and center it directly in front of your body; place the secondary one to the side. If you are using both, place them side by side in front of you (creating a “v”) with the center where the monitors meet, perfectly centered with your body; and
  • Always use a headset when on the phone (at work, in the car and at home).

Making Life Easier 

There’s no question that digital devices and communication have transformed everyday life in the past 20 years. The information presented here is offered in the spirit of enhancing the advantages of today’s technology and helping to minimize its potential hazards.

Photo credit: JPC-PROD/

This article appears in the April 2015 issue of Western City
Did you like what you read here? Subscribe to Western City