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NIOSH Exploratory Study on Keyboard Design Finds No Major Differences in User Comfort, Fatigue

NIOSH Update:

Contact: Fred Blosser (202) 260-8519
January 8, 1997

Results of an exploratory study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) suggest that computer keyboard design is not a significant factor for user comfort.

Over a two-day period, test subjects reported no significant differences between the levels of discomfort and fatigue they experienced when using conventional video display terminal keyboards and three alternative keyboard designs, the study found. In all cases, reported levels of discomfort and fatigue were low.

Additional research is needed to determine whether alternative keyboard designs have benefits for users over longer periods, or for workers who previously have reported symptoms of discomfort or fatigue, NIOSH said.

“The findings of this study provide a vital ingredient for the further research needed to protect keyboard users effectively from upper-extremity musculoskeletal disorders,” said NIOSH Director Linda Rosenstock, M.D., M.P.H.

NIOSH has conducted pioneering studies on VDT safety issues for several years, including a landmark 1991 study that resolved long-standing questions about potential effects from VDTs on reproductive health. The institute also has led research to find practical, effective ways to protect workers from job-related musculoskeletal risks.

Some scientists have theorized that changes in keyboard configuration can protect users from musculoskeletal disorders of the wrist, arm, and back. Within the past five years, as public concern over musculoskeletal disorders has grown, manufacturers have begun to market keyboards based on alternative designs. However, few studies have examined actual performance on alternative keyboards to evaluate whether they are more beneficial than standard designs in preventing discomfort, fatigue, and strain.

The NIOSH study involved 50 female clerical workers, each of whom typed on either a conventional keyboard or one of three alternative keyboards. The alternative units all featured a split design — keys for the left hand and the right hand were on separate panels — but differed in other ways. The study will be published soon in the peer-reviewed technical journal Applied Ergonomics.

Results of the study, conducted by NIOSH researchers Naomi G. Swanson, Traci L. Galinsky, Libby L. Cole, Christopher S. Pan, and Steven L. Sauter, are available from NIOSH by calling toll-free 1-800-35-NIOSH. For further information on other NIOSH research on VDTs and musculoskeletal issues, contact the toll-free number or visit the NIOSH home page on the World Wide Web,