Although it may not seem so at first glance, the recent decision by a federal judge in the Digital Equipment keyboard case is a boon for computer users who sit at a keyboard every day and live in fear of repetitive stress injuries (RSI).

A federal district court jury in Brooklyn, N.Y., last December ordered Digital Equipment Corp. to pay a New York secretary $5.3 million for RSI pain and suffering, which she attributed to the keyboard of the DEC computer at her office. But this spring, the judge threw out the verdict because new evidence showed the plaintiff had incurred a neck injury outside the office, which was the more likely explanation for the pain she suffered.

Thousands of lawsuits have been filed around the country against keyboard makers, and law firms have been recruiting new clients for this potential pot of gold. One Philadelphia firm came to our newspaper reporters' union eagerly looking for plaintiffs. If your hand or arm hurts, they said, we'll blame it on your keyboard and get you a fat tort settlement from IBM, DEC, or some other computer manufacturer.

In fact, this new wave of litigation is a cruel hoax on people who are already suffering from the agonies of RSI. In all the legal cases so far, that verdict against DEC was the only major win for a plaintiff and it could not stand judicial scrutiny. Tort lawyers say they'll continue to sue keyboard manufacturers. But it is doubtful that any plaintiff can win.

Frankly, the idea of blaming RSI a painful and disabling muscle ailment on keyboard makers was nutty from the start. It's like suing the pencil company because you failed a test.

The basic keyboard design has been around for 100 years or so. If anything, modern electronic keyboards involve less muscle strain than the old mechanical models. How can manufacturers of this venerable device be to blame for a syndrome that has become a public health problem only in the last 10 years?

Most studies of RSI are still vague about the actual causes of the ailment. But there is more certainty about preventative measures. And that's why we welcome the judge's decision in the DEC case.

If this ruling leads people to give up their dreams of damage claims against keyboard makers and take steps on their own to protect against injury, there will be two valuable results: A decrease in RSI, and an increase in personal responsibility, a quality that is sometimes lacking in our blame-the-other-guy society.

If you regularly spend hours at a computer keyboard, it is up to you to prevent RSI. There are three key steps to doing so, doctors generally agree.

First, you and your employer need to make sure your work station is adjusted correctly for your height, vision, etc. The general rules are: type with wrists straight and elbows at a 90-degree angle, keep your feet flat on the floor (or footrest), sit about two feet from the monitor, with the top of the screen slightly below eye level. Most employers have guidelines on this, and there are many books on the topic. We like "The Computer User's Survival Guide" by Joan Stigliani.

Second, you must break up your work so that your hands and eyes get a rest every few minutes. Employers have a responsibility, as well, to allow time for this.

Third, you should exercise regularly that means, every day to keep hand, arm, and back muscles in shape. Employers' guidelines and many books have ideas for unobtrusive exercises you can do quietly, right in the office. If you want to be high-tech about it, a company called S Systems (800-697-5971) puts out a $25 software program "Time Out for Windows" that leads the exercises right on the computer screen. You can sample the exercises at the company's Web site, www.go2ssc.com.

There's also a raft of computer gear on sale that has been designed to head off RSI. You have to decide for yourself which of the "ergonomic keyboards," arm rests, document holders, screen filters, etc., really make you feel better on the job.

With so much time spent cruising the Internet these days, the mouse is perhaps getting more use than the keyboard. We recently replaced a fairly standard mouse with an ergonomic alternative, the "Mouse-Trak" trackball from ITAC Systems (800-533-4822). It's a little hard to get used to the device has six mouse buttons instead of the usual two. But for our hands, it really did reduce the tension and stiffness we sometimes feel after mousing around all day.

T.R. Reid is Rocky Mountain bureau chief of the Washington Post. Brit Hume is managing editor of Fox News in Washington. You can reach them in care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St., Washington D.C. 20071-9200, or you can e-mail T.R. Reid at trreid@ix.netcom.com, or Brit Hume at 72737.357@compuserve.com.

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