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Ironically enough, the very computer that has the potential to hurt you may now be able to help you. There are a variety of programs to help you use your computer safely - from applications that remind you to take periodic rest breaks to programs that provide ergonomics and safety training. Mixed in are stretching and exercises programs, voice recognition software, and work pacing programs.

Ergonomics and safety software generally breaks down into a few distinct categories:

Break Reminders: Since proper work pacing and adequate breaks are an important part of preventing injury, these programs help remind users to take periodic breaks during work. Break reminders can range from simple timers that go off at pre-determined intervals to complex, algorithm-based software that varies the breaks depending on a user's habits.

What to look for: For home users, a simple timer that goes off at set intervals to suggest a break may be adequate. Office users may need a more flexible alarm that they can disable or put off temporarily while working on a project. Some break reminders are also paired with stretching programs or programs that provide ergonomic advice. Many simple break timers (often referred to as "egg timers") are available for free or as shareware, while sophisticated algorithm-based programs are generally commercial.

Ergonomics Training: These programs seek to provide information about proper arrangement, usage, and work habits. Generally aimed at companies needing to fulfill OSHA or state safety requirements, they often include short videos or animations to help guide users through proper setup.

What to look for: If you're a company, you may want to consider software that gathers data about individual completion and returns it to a central server, thus giving you detailed records of compliance. Some software can provide a basic assessment of each user, provide an indication of their risk of computer-related injury, or even create customized training. Carefully consider the credibility and experience of the software's source, the length of time for which it has been available, and any independent scientific studies of its effectiveness.

Stretching Programs: Stretching applications offer a series of individual stretches or stretch programs to help computer users relax their muscles while working, or strengthen muscles to help prevent injury. Many stretching programs also work in conjunction with break timers, watching your work pace and providing stretching breaks at certain intervals.

What to look for: There are a variety of options to choose from - some programs use pictures, other feature animations, while still others use video or short movies. For these programs to be effective, you need to actually heed the stretch break, so choose whichever method is most enjoyable and you're most likely to follow.

Voice Recognition Software: Voice recognition software turns users' speech into text. Users speak into a microphone (which is attached to the computer), and the program - which includes both a standard database of terms, as well as the ability to "learn" new ones - transcribes their voice into text that can then be edited manually. (Read more about Voice Recognition.)

What to look for: These programs are constantly improving their recognition rates, so make sure that you buy the latest version of the program. Voice Recognition may also be enhanced through the use of a noise-canceling headset that helps filter out background noises and improve clarity. Check to see whether the program allows you to dictate in your favorite program (Microsoft Word, for example), or whether it allows you to speak commands (such as opening a web site location in your browser).

Macros/Sequencing Programs: Key Sequencers or "Macros" allow you to automate common tasks - such as formatting a document or inserting your address - by assigning complex key sequences to single keys (or simple combinations of keys). The goal of these programs is to reduce the amount of typing a user does - and with it the risk of repetitive stress injury.

What to look for: Make sure that the program you buy is customizable enough to fit your needs.

Keyboard/Mouse Software: There are a variety of programs available to alter or customize the function of your keyboard or mouse. Some software lets you assign different letters to each key; many are based on the Dvorak layout (an alternate layout which many people feel improves typing speed and efficiency). Other programs let you choose alternate functions for your second (or third or fourth) mouse buttons.

Because ergonomics software is still a relatively new field, there are continuing advancements and improvements. What you buy will ultimately depend on your budget and needs - but with all the ergonomic software out there, there's definitely something for you.

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