It was supposed to solve many problems and make life easier and more efficient for many people, but, at a small ($20 million) company in the Northeast, word processing has become, literally, a pain in the neck. The problem didn't arise because the 32 Atex terminals didn't perform as promised but because, before they were installed, no one thought enough about the offices in which they would go.

"Well, I can stand the pain," says a pert, 22-year-old secretary mustering a stiff upper lip, but the remark -- more common than most chief executive officers or office managers realize -- is hardly a glowing endorsement of the new electronic office.

After spending a few hours entering manuscripts into the system, the secretary finds that her eyesight gets "blurry," pains develop in her back and neck, and her arms grow weak. Her only recourse is to sneak away from the terminal for a short while. The reason for her predicament is that, while management gave her a new $2,500 tool, it didn't spend one cent preparing her work space for it.

Another employee for the same company notes that she had asked management to consider the environmental factor before introducing the terminals, but that management had failed to do so, now, five months after the system went on line, management has finally put in an order for a few new chairs. The employee, who sometimes spends an entire eight-hour day "hunched over" her keyboard, doesn't expect the Band-Aid approach to solve what has become a "really uncomfortable" work situation.

"There's a gigantic mismatch between the existing office environment and the new office technologies," says Jon Ryburg, of Facility Management Institute (FMI), a consulting, research, and educational firm in Ann Arbor, Mich. Lights, desks, chairs, heating and air-conditioning systems, and electrical systems -- all generally designed for the "paper office" -- may offset the electronic advantage and occasionally create problems that cut productivity.

Beyond the issue of efficiency -- compromised when employees grow uncomfortable in a mismatched environment -- lies the question of shortand long-term health hazards. The long list of ills that have been attributed to cathode-ray tubes (CRTs) ranges from fatigue and eyestrain to cataracts and problem pregnancies.

The problems have not gone unnoticed. In 1979, United Nations workers struck because of an apparently abnormal miscarriage rate among CRT operators. And, in 1980, 1,000 clerical employees struck Blue Shield of California, complaining, among other things, of CRT glare, bad lighting, and poor ventilation. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and 9to5, the National Association of Working Women, have both issued CRT guidelines. And the United Auto Workers, which regards CRT safety as "a hot issue," has recently drafted sample contract language on the use of CRTs, stipulating CRT support furniture.

Dan LacLeod, an industrial hygienist with the UAW, notes that, given the explosive growth in the number of CRTs -- one study concluded that, by 1990, 75% of all office jobs will involve them -- the issue may soon "catch fire."

Responsibility for the mismatch problem is most often laid at the feet of the computer manufacturers who, in their rush to develop and introduce products that excelled at a given task, often ignored the needs of the performers of the task. "Their thinking stopped at the screen and keyboard," says one office designer. And, after problems appeared, vendors hesitated to tell customers that they might have to spend 10% to 30% more for new lighting, desks, chairs, and other items suited to CRTs.

It was not until the mid-1970s that the troubles were openly acknowledged. "Our industry began addressing the issue about five years ago, " observes Stephen D. Channer, executive director of the Business & Institutional Furniture Manufacturer's Association, "and we've been actively involved in the production of furniture for the electronic office for the past two to three years." Such furniture -- frequently referred to as ergonomic (altering working conditions to fit the worker) or systems furniture -- now accounts for 30% of industry sales and is the fastest-growing segment of the market.

The demand has led a number of giants -- among them IBM, Burroughs, Xerox, National Cash Register, and 3M -- to enter the furniture business, eager, no doubt, to correct their earlier oversights

"People are the key element in any office, past, present or future," says a representative for Steelcase Inc., of Grand Rapids, Mich., the largest manufacturer of office furniture in the world (1981 revenue, $800 million). "And, if people aren't considered first, the new technologies will . never pay off as promised."

THE TERMINAL

Whether it is called a CRT, a VDT (video display terminal), or a VDU (visual display unit), the terminal is where most of the problems originate and where many of them can most easily be eliminated. Approximately 5 million of the units are already in place (roughly one for every 10 white-collar workers in the United States), and the number is expected to double by 1985.

A powerful and versatile tool, the CRT is also demanding and sometimes dangerous. Its screen produces an image that is significantly harder to read than printed material, it generates heat and low levels of radiation, and it frequently requires an operator to sit for extended periods in uncomfortable positions. The result is a list of complaints: eyestrain, stiff neck and shoulders, irritability, back pain, fatigue, blurred vision, skin rash, stomachaches, loss of feeling in fingers and wrists. The symptoms occur 20% to 30% more frequently among CRT users, according to NIOSH, than among nonusers. (The role of radiation in the development of cataracts and problem pregnancies is still unclear.) NIOSH also found that CRT operators displayed higher stress ratings than any group of workers ever tested, including air traffic controllers.

The CRT's impact on the human body has a direct effect not only on physical and mental health, but also on productivity. Ryburg, of FMI (part of Herman Miller Inc., the nation's second largest manufacturer of office furniture), notes that problems arise when employees spend more than 20% to 30% of their time using a CRT. An 8% to 20% reduction in operator speed, accuracy, and comprehension frequently results.

Several European countries, especially those with socialized medicine -- and thus a real fiscal interest in the long-term health hazards of new technology -- have adopted standards for regulating CRTs, their use, and the use of terminal support furniture. The United States, lacking that financial incentive, has failed so far to follow the lead of Germany, Sweden, and others, possibly paving the way, according to one NIOSH spokesperson, for a rash of product liability lawsuits in the next decade.

The irony is that there is a general consensus among manufacturers, unions, and government agencies as to what should be done: Design criteria suggested by NIOSH, 9to5, or the "VDT Coalitiori" (representing five international unions) are virtually the same. The 9to5 proposals are typical: CRT screens should be updown and side-to-side adjustable, they should be made of glare-free glass; keyboards should be detachable; character size should be greater than 3mm, with a dot matrix greater than 5x7, there should be no discernible flicker, and image brightness and contrast should be operator-controlled, the terminal enclosure should be metal, with a matte finish and ventilation that exhausts up or down.

A number of vendors are now designing products that conform more nearly to the ideal, but The Seybold Report of Office Systems in October noted that, "It was [still] difficult to find ergonomic terminals 'Made in U.S.A." The same report reiterated the underlying concern: "Every study made by governments here and in Europe seems to establish that neither clerical productivity nor satisfaction are increasing, even though we are supporting the office worker for the first time with more than the cost of a table, a chair, and a Selectric typewriter."

It is also recommended that CRT use be limited to four hours per person, per day, with 15-minute rest breaks every two hours. There should be annual eye exams.

FURNITURE

The intelligent selection of a terminal is obviously the appropriate place to begin But what about those thousands of offices that already have old IBMs, Honeywells Wangs, TIs, Digitals, and Savins sitting on solid-oak desks?

Ergonomic furniture can offer a quick fix for many of the problems associated with CRTs The traditional desk and chair, their designs dating from antiquity, simply aren't flexible enough to meet the demands of the electronic office, sitting at them restricts viewing and movement in ways that quickly add up to discomfort.

An operator may find the screen too far away, inclined at the wrong angle, and occupying too much of the work space (a typical CRT takes up 30% of a desktop), while the keyboard sits too high to stroke properly. The most basic criteria no longer make sense -- the standard desk is suddenly four inches too tall -- and swiveling about in an old-fashioned chair doesn't improve the situation. In addition, storage areas don't gracefully accommodate the software, disks, and other computer paraphernalia that CRTs may require.

The solution -- in a word that sums up the ergonomic philosophy -- is flexibility: furniture that adapts as much as possible to provide for the user's comfort. A few smaller companies, more alert than some of the larger ones, began manufacturing such furniture early, Systems Furniture Co., of Torrance, Calif., for instance, had computer-support furniture in 1971. But, for most, the breakthrough came more recently. Steelcase's Series 9000 office line became its electronic Ultronic 9000 just three years ago. Several dozen companies now produce such furniture.

The ergonomic desk generally features larger work surfaces (deeper to accommodate the screen, wider for the keyboard) and multilevel surfaces (screen on top, keyboard below) allowing adjustment (the Westinghouse work surface goes up or down in one-inch increments to satisfy any size user). On some, trays slide or fold under the desk to hide the keyboard when it is not in use.

Based on earlier "systems" (component or modular) notions, work surfaces take various configurations. The keyboard area may shift from one side of the desk to the other to accommodate "lefties" or "righties." In one interesting Steelcase configuration, three work surfaces radiate from a central screen-and-keyboard area, permitting three workers to share a single CRT In each case, however, the crucial goals are the same -- correct eye-to-screen and handto-keyboard relationships.

The chair is another important factor in the formula. "Dynamic" design of back and seat provides comfort and support, as well as some unusual shapes (one designer has come up with a split, two-piece seat that cushions each buttock individually), while a plethora of adjustments fine-tunes the basic positions. Westinghouse's Encore chair permits the user to regulate height and back tilt, while Steelcase's Con-Centrx offers what sounds like a hedonistic experience. "Your chair back tilts at twice the rate of the seat, so the angle of your body and the muscles of your torso are constantly changing. What happens, involuntarily, is a series of small isometric exercises. . . good for the muscles, good for the circulation."

Ideally, a CRT operator is able to adjust keyboard height, eye-to-screen distance, viewing angle, hand-to-keyboard distance, seat height, and back support.

A quick and relatively inexpensive solution is a good chair in front of one of the new VDT stands, a small desklike contraption that turns a terminal every which way but loose. The RH-System stand soon to be offered by the Corry Jamestown Corp., of Corry, Pa., electrically adjusts screen and keyboard height, plus or minus 10 inches, and permits adjustment of screen angle (by 17 degrees) and of the distance between operator, keyboard, and screen; optional side extensions, for holding documents, may also be moved up and down.

Other fixes are available from the makedo school of design. There are portable CRT holders or carousels that slip under a screen so it can be tilted, turned, or elevated, similar keyboard holders; and retractable keyboard pads that can be mounted under a desk. A wide range of accessories -- CRT palm rests, foot-activated easels for advancing paper copy, computer tape racks, 15-inch-deep desk drawers for holding printout folders -- help complete the transformation of the "paper office" into the modern electronic work station.

Naturally, the need for new furniture is best considered before CRTs are introduced, but even the most informed advance planning sometimes falls short of the mark. When Business Week magazine purchased 106 terminals for its editors and writers, senior systems manager Richard I. Ulman, in charge of the project, explored every possibility. Vendors, he found, showed little understanding of the environmental factors involved, while furniture manufacturers overstated them.

Finally, Ulman asked furniture wholesalers to set up prototype work stations at the magazine's offices, where employees could check out the new desks and chairs. (Staffers were given a choice between their old furniture and the new -- 50% stayed with the familiar.) But, even after such preparation, difficulties developed. Three months after the CRTs made their debut, some of those who had voted unergonomically began to develop eye and back problems; some older workers found they couldn't read the screens while wearing bifocals, and, in one case, a writer required treatment for muscle spasms.

Ulman's advice to others confronting the mismatch problem: "Stay flexible."

SOUND, LIGHT, UTILITIES

For the same reason that most people instinctively turn down the lights while watching television, a CRT operator generally finds that less light works better -- it maximizes the contrast between image and screen, and reduces glare, making viewing easier and more comfortable. Findings by the American National Standards Institute and others also reflect the difference; a non-CRT office requires an illumination level of 750 to 1,600 lux, while the CRT office needs half as much (from 300 to 500 lux). Unfortunately, many white-collar employees do both "paper" and electronic work or work in a "mixed" office, or one where light sources and levels are not easily controlled. As a result, lighting problems are the most frequent complaint mentioned by CRT users. In a 1980 NIOSH study, fully 91% of those surveyed reported eyestrain.

There are several ways to minimize problems. Window drapes, matte finishes on reflective surfaces, baffles beneath ceiling lights, and CRT glare screens and hoods will all reduce glare, while adjustable lights give an operator additional control.

The most popular solution, at the moment, is task lighting. By providing different light sources and levels for general work surfaces and the terminal area, it is possible to create an environment that is appeasing to the eyes.

Some furniture manufacturers now incorporate task-lighting fixtures in their systems furniture, one new design (by Steelcase) features a clever revolving moirepattern that permits a virtually unlimited regulation of light direction and intensity on the work surface.

At Business Week, editors and writers who declined the new furniture soon realized that they couldn't ignore the light problems they were having. They requested, and got, glare filters. Some also later decided to request new tables and chairs.

Sound is another illusive irritant in the electronic office. Although the terminals themselves are surprisingly quiet, an impact printer, transforming impulses into hard copy, may generate 70 decibels' worth of sound -- twice the level considered comfortable in an office setting. (Sound louder than 60 dbs interferes with concentration and affects a person's sense of well-being.)

Fortunately, the remedies are inexpensive and relatively easy to implement. The printer can be moved away from people or outfitted with a simple sound cover. Carpeting, sound-absorbing material on ceilings and walls, and high-performance acoustical panels -- used in many "open" offices to partition work space -- can also minimize the disruption. The panels, by themselves, can provide nearby workers with a 20% reduction in noise level.

CRTs not only make demands on their users, they also interfere with the utilities, a situation that may necessitate fundamental changes. The massive, and ubiquitous, cables that power and feed information to terminals must be hidden for the sake of safety and aesthetics, they may sneak in through a wall in a normal office, but in an "open" environment, they must snake through electrical and communications raceways. Where the wiring is extensive -- linking telephone equipment, intercoms, word processing equipment, and CRTs -- raised flooring may be required. Furniture manufacturers, sensitive to the CRT's needs, now incorporate cable pathways and openings in their electronic furniture series.

Having a large number of terminals may also require the upgrading of an office's power grid, as they did at Business Week. At the same time, the heat produced by the terminals (one CRT yields as many Btus as a person does) may seriously affect ventilation and air conditioning, particularly in some modern, energy-efficient, but under-ventilated, buildings.

In a very real sense, it still isn't safe to go back into the office. But a growing appreciation of the problems and requirements of the electronic environment -- along with the necessary furniture and hardware to address them -- is quickly leading to the day when it will be.