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Mobile Computing Ergonomics, Part 2
Advances in wireless communications and mobile computing have turned today’s squad car into a fully functional office on wheels. Unfortunately, officers manning the squad-car-turned-office often discover that the benefits of mobility come at the expense of comfort and performance and sometimes even health and safety.
At the heart of the problem is a near-total disregard for ergonomics. Unlike the typical office or work cubicle, environments that have been shaped by decades of ergonomics research and development, the mobile office has, until recently, been largely neglected as far as ensuring the comfort of vehicle-bound workers. To the great relief of the hundreds of thousands of patrol officers across the United States who spend much of their shifts behind the wheel, the principles of ergonomics are finally beginning to be applied to the mobile workplace.
Compared to the squad car’s assemblage of communications, warning, and mobile computing equipment, the typical civilian office desk is a truly bare environment. With so much more gear with which an officer must interface—often with great speed—the importance of optimizing ergonomic placement of important equipment, vital controls, and creature comforts is obvious.
The typical driver interacts with only about seven controls (shifter, steering wheel, three pedals, turn signals, horn). During aggressive driving, a police officer is required to interact with three to four times the number of devices, including all of the “traditional” input devices already mentioned, plus lightbar switches, multiple radios, computers, radar, and video systems. All of this interaction occurs under conditions that would normally stretch an officer’s abilities, even without the unique in-cabin challenges.
Ergonomics Affect Comfort and Performance
Ergonomic principles are currently being employed to address several issues related to working within the confines of a squad car.
Eye Strain: This is caused by poorly lit mobile computing solutions. In contrast to the well-lit offices most of us are accustomed to, the squad car work environment provides multiple illumination challenges. During certain times of the day, for example, bright outdoor conditions can make it difficult to see the computer’s screen. Eye strain can also result from screen vibration caused by an unstable mount. Attempting to focus on a computer screen that vibrates while the vehicle is in motion can sometimes trigger migraines.
Night Blindness: Darkness can make it difficult to see the keyboard at night. Screen brightness, on the other hand, can adversely affect an officer’s natural ability to see in darkness and can greatly impact his situational awareness.
Back Strain: By far, one of the most common complaints related to poor mobile office ergonomics is back fatigue. The stretching, twisting, and turning associated with improper placement of the screen and keyboard can lead to potentially debilitating lower back pain. Problems of this nature are not limited solely to the officer driving the squad car. Passengers who are forced to twist their legs to avoid bumping into improperly positioned equipment can suffer, as well.
Wrist Strain: Another common ergonomic hazard associated with both stationary and mobile computing is that of wrist strain. A glance at the pages devoted to supports, pillows, rests, cushions, and other wrist-related devices found in just about any office supply catalog provides convincing evidence of the importance placed on proper wrist alignment when using a keyboard. Most of the available wrist aids, however, are not designed to function in the mobile environment.
Discomfort Not Only Consequence
Although the pain and discomfort associated with poor squad car ergonomics are significant problems in and of themselves, ergonomic deficiencies can result in another, equally serious consequence—typing errors. At first blush, this may seem like a trivial matter. But when you consider the frequency with which court cases are dismissed because of simple clerical errors, the importance of providing an optimized work environment becomes even more obvious.
Job satisfaction and productivity are intimately related to how comfortable a worker is when performing his duties. When deploying a mounting solution fleet-wide, simple things like access to cup holders and availability of armrests can influence user acceptance of the equipment and can greatly affect the daily productivity of the officers. Too often, thousands of dollars are invested in a vehicle in the form of computers, while mounting and usability issues are totally ignored. It doesn’t make sense to let a lack of cup holders or difficulty reaching microphones undermine a high-dollar project when these minor, but important, issues can be addressed so easily.
User evaluations can help you identify and assess any ergonomic traps before you upfit your entire fleet. Once you have successfully addressed officers’ concerns, it’s important to make EVERY vehicle as consistent as possible so that officers can easily operate any fleet vehicle without concern for locating critical interfaces when called to action.
A Systems Approach
Since the mid-1990s, when the issue of workplace-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) first gained widespread attention, employers nationwide have invested billions of dollars to ensure the health of their workers. For office workers, this has meant investments in furniture and computer peripherals that are ergonomically designed to prevent workplace-related injuries.
For the mobile worker, ergonomic solutions primarily take the form of devices designed to properly position computers, peripherals, and other equipment to avoid the types of problems described previously. From a patrol officer’s perspective, an ergonomic mobile computing solution should contain the following elements:
Tubes / Poles: These should be adjustable, allowing the solution to be set to an ideal height. Ideally, the solution must clear the center console and provide enough clearance for the officer to easily access the shift lever, radios, or light switches that are located under the docking station. The pole should also be as stable as possible to minimize vibration, reducing the likelihood of eye strain.
Swing Arms: These devices allow an officer to position the computer in several locations throughout the cab. While driving, the laptop should be positioned as close to the centerline of the vehicle as possible to avoid possible injury. During a stop or while completing a report, the laptop should be positioned as close to the driver as possible to improve comfort, and reduce the risk of injury or key-stroke mistakes. A swing arm that could come in contact with an occupant must lock into place securely to avoid possible injury during aggressive maneuvers.
Radios: These should be mounted in a way that allows easy access to critical switches. Always give priority to the radios that are accessed most frequently, and mount them in a way that allows the officer to reach them without obstruction. Also ensure that all members of the department (both short and tall) can see the channel indicator.
Screens: These must be positioned as close to the horizon as possible to improve situational awareness, reduce neck strain, and improve daytime visibility. The brighter the better, but be sure to educate your officers on how to dim the screen for nighttime use. Most laptops offer shortcut commands to decrease screen brightness and improve the officer’s night vision. If multiple screens are present (laptop, in-car video, infrared cameras, etc.) ensure that priority positioning is given to the device most frequently used—typically the laptop.
Keyboards: Critical for data entry, keyboards must tilt to provide wrist relief during data entry. While using a laptop mount, the entire laptop will tilt, allowing the user to position it at an ideal angle. If a separate keyboard is used, it, too, should utilize a tilt mechanism. Never allow an external keyboard to be loosely stowed in the cab, as it could become a projectile during an accident.
Microphones: These devices should be mounted within easy reach of the officer. Once again, priority should be given to the microphone that is most frequently used. Keep in mind that the reach path to the microphone should be unobstructed as this is a critical movement during times of duress and call-to-action.
Lightbar Switches: Lightbar switches and controls for sirens, alarms, and other critical components should also be positioned to allow officers to activate them easily and comfortably during a pursuit. Many radio and switch control companies offer small, two-piece control head units, which allow the main electronics modules to be mounted in the trunk. While they are a bit more expensive, they can free up considerable space in the front of the vehicle. Trunk slide-out trays and boxes are available from many manufacturers to mount these remote devices.
Printer Mounts: These mounts should hold the peripheral securely and allow the officer to easily access printouts. Just as with laptops, the printer should be as close as possible to the centerline of the vehicle to avoid airbags, or it should be mounted in the passenger footwell area. Be careful mounting in the passenger footwell area (especially in snow prione areas) as water from boots and pants can destroy a device mounted here. A number of companies offer armrest printer mounts that can enhance officer comfort and glove box mounts that can get the printer out of the way all together.
Storage: Traditional office workers don’t worry about where to store their pens or where to place their morning coffee. Too often, creature comforts are forgotten in the mobile world. A good storage console will offer cup holders and a place to store tissue, pencils, and paper. Don’t underestimate the impacts these items have on worker comfort and job satisfaction.
Passenger Comfort: Ergonomics in the mobile office do not apply only to the driver. Often, the solution used to create a proper ergonomic environment for the driver negatively impacts the passenger. If the solution interferes with passenger legroom, it could force the passenger into an awkward or uncomfortable position—one that is potentially dangerous in a crash. If the passenger seat will be occupied, special consideration must be given to how the mobile computing system’s components, especially the mounting base and tube, will affect the passenger.
Customization: Not all departments have the same needs and, therefore, you may not see the exact configuration you want in a catalog or Web site. Many of the leading mount manufacturers will modify their standard products to meet your need for no additional fee or a small setup charge if you ask. You should make sure they have this capability.
The Importance of Teamwork
One issue that can negatively affect the deployment of an ergonomic mounting system is lack of coordination between fleet managers, IT and communications departments within a department. Often IT deployments have to work around older, incompatible mounting hardware previously purchased by the radio or fleet shops or vice versa long before the computer deployment was even considered.
Given the significant investment in a mobile computer deployment, compared to the relatively low cost of the mounting equipment, in some cases, it may be worth replacing legacy mounts with new mounts that meet the approval of the fleet, communications and IT departments and have officer safety and ergonomics in mind. It is also an opportunity to improve uniformity in the fleet.
The Importance of Installation
Regardless of the mobile computing mounting solution you select to enhance squad car ergonomics, it is important to remember that under no circumstances should officer safety be compromised. A poorly made ergonomic solution that poses a potential hazard is worse than no solution at all. Make certain that the solution is solidly constructed from quality materials, and be sure to install it according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
If you can get your hands on samples of the different mounts under consideration, compare them side by side, feature by feature. Note the thickness of the material, the quality of the welds, and other fabrication details. The presence of any sharp edges, rough surfaces, or other defects should send up a warning flag—if you see obvious signs of poor quality, there’s no telling what other problems may be lurking beneath the surface.
Finally, solicit the input of your officers. Have officers of various statures try out the proposed solution and assess it on the basis of functionality and comfort. To help ensure that all users rate the mounting solution according to the same criteria, use a standardized evaluation form. This will prove not only more convenient for the officers, but it will help you quickly identify any areas of potential concern.
We hope that some day soon, patrol officers will be able to take computing ergonomics for granted, just like the rest of us. But until that day arrives, the officers’ health, comfort, and safety rest in the hands of the managers who supervise the upfitting of their vehicles. The more you know about the equipment options available to you, the better prepared you will be to fulfill the role of ergonomic guardian.
Nicolas Milani is the business development manager for LEDCO (www.ledco.net). He has a degree in mechanical engineering and experience in a number of mobile computing environments. Before joining LEDCO, Milani worked for Motorola. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Published in Police Fleet Manager, Sep/Oct 2008
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