Under the Laptop
This versatile platform improves ergonomics, reduces heat build-up.
IT sounds like urban legend, but it's not. A 50-year-old Swedish scientist
was using his laptop computer while sitting in an armchair one evening in his
home. With the computer on his lap, he typed for about an hour, occasionally
feeling heat and what was later described as "a burning feeling on his lap and
proximal thigh," a sensation the scientist dealt with and temporarily relieved
by slightly adjusting the computer's position as he went on with his work.
The next day, noticing "irritation" in his nether region, the man decided to
see a doctor, who later reported in The Lancet, the United Kingdom's
leading medical journal, that his patient had suffered "penile and scrotal
blisters," which eventually "broke and developed into infected wounds that
caused extensive suppuration." Yes, the patient was wearing "trousers and
underpants" when he sustained the lap burns, confirmed the doctor, adding that
he was sharing the incident to provide "a serious warning" against using laptops
"in a literal sense."
If you're among the estimated 100 million laptop users in the world, chances
are good that, aside from wondering exactly what "extensive suppuration"
entails, you're now cringing with recognition of the scientist's initial
discomfort. For who among us in the laptop population does not know all too well
that "burning feeling" on our own proximal thighs? Who among us has not at some
point while using a laptop "in a literal sense" reached for a pillow to stuff
under the PC for buffering the searing that has our tender legs feeling like
Granted, the scientist's case here is an extreme, even freakish one, but far
less severe instances of mild to annoying lap discomfort are routine, given even
less time on the PC than it took the understandably anonymous scientist to get
scorched. The prevailing and comparatively euphemistic term in laptop literature
describing this discomfort is "Hot Leg."
Beating the Heat
Even if you've never heard the term, if you're a laptop user, you know the
condition and can attest that as far as sobriquets go, Hot Leg is an accurate
descriptor. It was José Calero, founder and president of LapWorks Inc.
(www.lapworksinc.com), who, as far as I can determine, introduced the term to
the laptop public. He insists he did not coin the term but picked it up from his
customers' positive reviews of the product he invented four years ago to prevent
Calero's invention, a lightweight, polycarbonate plastic tray called the
Laptop Desk, is a hinged and grooved worksurface for notebook PCs, PDAs, and
other portable devices. Deceptively simple in design, the tray's multiple
grooves serve as ventilation channels, allowing an airflow that not only
prevents Hot Leg but, according to LapWorks, also reduces heat build-up by 15 to
20 percent in the PC itself, thus extending the unit's battery and overall life.
For desktop use, the tray folds into a secure, adjustable, wedge-shaped stand
and relies on the no-slip rubber strips that cover its surface to hold the
propped PC in place. A built-in, positionable support arm lets the user select
from one of five different typing angles and, when fully extended, raises the
computer screen's viewing height by 3 1/4 inches closer to eye level.
When supporting a laptop on the lap, the tray is unfolded, creating a flat,
ample work area and allowing for a natural, knees-apart sitting position. Not
only is the tray sturdier and wieldier in this position than the protective
pillow ploy, it also precludes risk of suffocating or overheating your machine
while allowing for an ergonomically better posture.
Know When to Fold 'Em
Of course, laptop PCs are, in general, an ergonomist's nightmare. Laptop
designs violate the basic ergonomic requirement for a computer to have its
keyboard and screen separated. OSHA's checklist of ergonomic considerations for
computer workstations goes on for pages and barely mentions laptops (and Hot Leg
not at all) except to say that they create "special challenges," require
"special considerations," and "are generally not suitable for prolonged typing
The CDC is more direct in this regard, including on its Web site at the start
of its section on laptops the following all-capital note: "LAPTOP COMPUTERS ARE
NOT RECOMMENDED AS PRIMARY COMPUTERS. IN THE OFFICE OR WHILE AT HOME, A DOCKING
STATION IS RECOMMENDED TO PROVIDE ADJUSTABILITY WHICH WILL ENHANCE NEUTRAL
In this age of hyper mobility and portability, such caveats are not likely to
deter the increasingly populous, perpetually stiff-necked throng of us who
consider the PC as essential to our packing as our toothpaste, but the warnings
may remind us to also include appropriate accessories in our bags. My version of
the Laptop Desk, version 2.0, is great for travel, folding to a compact 5/8 of
an inch thick and weighing just more than a pound.
LapWorks' latest edition of the desk, released this month and called the
Laptop Desk UltraLite, improves these tote-conducive numbers, cutting the
thickness in half to 5/16 of an inch and weighing a mere 14.6 ounces. Engineered
especially for tablet PCs and other "ultra portables," the UltraLite unfolds to
create a 22- by 11-inch workspace (1 1/2 inches longer than version 2.0's) and
retails for $29.95, which is also the retail price for version 2.0. Accessories
are available for both desks, which have the same Hot Leg-preventing
Better Late Than Never
Which brings us back to the worst case of the condition on record. Upon
hearing about and no doubt wincing at The Lancet report, Calero promptly
shipped off two of his Laptop Desks, one for the Swedish scientist and one for
his physician. According to Calero, the gifts were happily received.
This article originally appeared in the September 2004 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.