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2 Firms Adopt Labels Warning Computer Users About Danger of Injury : Technology: Compaq, Microsoft are the first to state that harm could come from keyboard misuse or too much typing. Safety guides provide users with tips.

From Staff and Wire Reports

Compaq Computer Corp. said Tuesday that it will put warning labels on computer keyboards this fall, directing people to read a safety guide with tips to avoid hand and wrist injuries.

Microsoft Corp. also will place warning labels on a specially designed keyboard it will begin selling in a few weeks.

The companies would become the first to clearly state there is a chance for injury from keyboard misuse or too much typing. There was no immediate sign that others would join them.

But the labeling raises the profile of a health issue confronting the computer industry.

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Dozens of manufacturers, including Compaq, are defending lawsuits brought by people who have suffered wrist or arm injuries. In Orange County, computer industry officials said the issue of keyboard design was not a main concern of customers.

“It’s really not something that’s at the top of the list as far as things customers ask about,” said David Dukes, co-chairman of Ingram Micro Inc. in Santa Ana, one of the nation’s largest personal computer and components distributors.

Dukes said he had “never encountered a single incident” of a customer expressing concern over stress related to keyboard use. “We talk to customers and focus groups, and we hear about features . . . like design and layout,” he said.

Officials for Ingram Micro and at Toshiba America Information Systems Inc.'s computer manufacturing division in Irvine said they have not faced any lawsuits from users alleging stress injuries related to keyboards.

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The central issue in many suits is whether people were adequately warned about the potential for harm. Injuries can range from simple soreness to a tissue swelling that harms nerves in the wrist, a condition known as carpal tunnel syndrome.

A partner at a New York law firm that represents 2,000 plaintiffs in keyboard injury cases praised Compaq and Microsoft but said the size and placement of the labels would make a difference.

“The fact some of these companies may be waking up to the interest in warning people is a very positive development,” said Robert Komitor, partner at Levi, Phillips and Konigsberg. “Time will tell whether these warnings are adequate or whether they’re to avert litigation.”

Compaq’s sticker will be on top of a keyboard with the message: “Warning! To Reduce Risk of Serious Injury to Hands, Wrists or Other Joints, Read Safety & Comfort Guide.”

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The company, the leading seller of personal computers in the first half of this year, has included a booklet of safety tips with each computer since 1991. It will have a new version of that booklet ready when the warning labels go out in the fourth quarter.

“This makes it visible to the user that there’s a document there that they ought to see or that they’re missing and can request,” said John Rose, senior vice president of Compaq’s desktop division.

He said the company was not reacting to litigation and declined to discuss what the legal ramifications may be.

Compaq earlier this year won a lawsuit brought by Patsy Woodcock, a Houston secretary who claimed that typing injuries left her unable to work. During the trial, Compaq argued that information available in 1988, when Woodcock began working on the keyboard, did not warrant such a warning.

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Compaq said Tuesday that there is still no scientifically established link between keyboard design and injuries. But it cited growing evidence, chiefly in news accounts, that typing with hands in awkward positions or for a long time can be harmful. So, the company said, it wanted to draw more attention to the safety guide.

Woodcock’s attorney, Mark Collmer, said, “If nothing else, it is an acknowledgment of the problem and it is a step in the right direction.”

Microsoft has built a healthy side business in computer accessories, such as an ergonomic mouse control. It will soon sell an angled keyboard with a special wrist rest and slanted keys designed to be more comfortable. Its warning label will also direct customers to a safety guide, said Debra Johnson, a Microsoft spokeswoman.

IBM, for years the leading maker of PCs, incorporates software with ergonomic information in its machines. It has no plans for warning labels, spokesman Peter Thonis said.

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Several other PC makers declined immediate comment on keyboard labeling.


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