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 tinder?

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 the problem.

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 tasks."

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 POSTURES."

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 capabilities.

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.

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