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CHICAGO-Computer keyboard design is not a significant factor in enhancing user comfort, federal researchers found after a recent "exploratory" study.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health studied 50 female clerical workers, each of whom performed typing duties over a two-day period on a conventional keyboard or one of three alternative keyboards.

The alternative units all featured a "split design," in which keys for the left hand and the right hand were on separate panels, among other differences.

The subjects reported "no significant differences between the levels of discomfort and fatigue they experienced" when using the different styles of keyboards. In all cases, reported levels of discomfort and fatigue were low.

"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 Dr. Linda Rosenstock, NIOSH director, during a recent conference on ergonomics issues in Chicago.

"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 in a report on the study.

"Some scientists have theorized that changes in keyboard configuration can protect users from musculoskeletal disorders of the wrist, arm and back," NIOSH noted. As public concern about these injuries has grown, manufacturers have begun to market split keyboards in 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," NIOSH reported.

Results of one such study, which NIOSH funded for a two-year period at Marquette University in Milwaukee, will be released soon.

Meanwhile, a few employers at the conference said they do not anticipate widespread use of alternative keyboards, though they may provide them to workers in special situations.

With alternative key arrangements, "you have a real long reach to the mouse," said Bob Morency, program developer-health for L.L. Bean Inc. in Freeport, Maine.

"Our workforce doesn't usually touch-type that much anymore," said Christopher Plott, manager-ergonomics at US West Inc. in Denver. "In fact, the tilted positioning of keys on an alternative keyboard tends to make them more difficult for a hunt-and-peck typist to see," he added.

For a free single copy of the study, call NIOSH, 1-800-356-4674.