June 2002

Check Out Your Workstation

Lisa Ellis (Intelihealth News Service)

You sit at your computer for eight hours a day, staring at the monitor and making the same tiny finger motions over and over. Your files are electronic, so you donít even get up to go to a filing cabinet. After a full day of this, youíre tired Ė and maybe even hurt. 

People who work with computers have reported a variety of problems that can be related to work habits, work station design or job design, according to the U.S. Department of Laborís Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). These complaints include fatigue, eyestrain and irritation, blurred vision, headaches and pains in the neck, back, arm and muscles. 

It doesnít have to happen. Although the way you work in an office can put a strain on your body, there are things you can do to be more comfortable and to help prevent injuries.

Your Work Habits  

Here are some basic tips, adapted from OSHA and other sources: 

  • Take periodic breaks. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends a 10-minute rest after two hours of continuous computer use, or a 15-minute rest every hour for work that is repetitive or makes intense demands on your eyes. If possible, get up from your desk and walk around.
  • In between these breaks, give your eyes a chance to rest by occasionally looking away from the computer screen and focusing on an object at least 20 feet (about 6 meters) away.
  • Whenever you can, alternate tasks that use the computer with those that do not. For example, after a long session at the keyboard, make a phone call or go pick up your mail.
  • Sit up straight in your chair. Good posture keeps your body in the proper alignment to reduce muscle strain.

Your Work Environment  

The design of your workstation and the surrounding office can make a difference in your comfort and perhaps reduce injuries. Here are some suggestions from OSHA on proper design for the work area: 

Lighting and glare:  

  • If possible, lighting for computer use should be indirect and not too bright. If, direct, overhead lighting is used, light-diffusing slats or louvers on the fixtures can help to reduce glare.
  • Workstations should be arranged to reduce glare. Ideally, your computer screen should be at right angles to windows or other light, so you do not have to face the light or see it reflected in the screen.
  • Blinds, shades or curtains should be used on windows located less than 20 feet (6 meters) from a computer terminal.
  • Glare filters can be attached to the computer screen. These should be used as a last resort because they can make it harder to read text on the screen.

General workstation design:  

  • Chairs, computer monitors and desks or other work surfaces should be adjustable to ensure maximum comfort.
  • The work area should have adequate space for the task and for the individual, including enough room to stretch out the legs periodically.

Your Equipment  

Simple adjustments to your chair, your monitor and other equipment also can help. OSHA suggests these steps: 

Chair:  

  • Adjust the height of the chair so your foot can rest flat on the floor or a footrest and so the backs of your knees are slightly higher than the chair seat.
  • Adjust the angle of the chair back and chair so your entire back has firm support and your weight is evenly distributed.
  • Make sure the armrests are low and short enough to fit under work surfaces. This allows you to get close enough to the computer.

Computer monitor:  

  • Adjust the height and angle of the monitor and your computer desk or table so you can look straight ahead or slightly down into the computer screen. The top of the screen should be no higher than eye level and you should not have to tilt your head backward.
  • Sit so that the distance between your eyes and the monitor is about 18 to 30 inches.
  • Use the brightness and contrast controls to make sure you can read the screen clearly and with a minimum of glare.

Keyboard:  

  • Adjust the height of the computer table or other surface where the keyboard sits to make sure you can work with a minimum of strain. Your forearms should be parallel to the floor, with elbows at your sides.
  • Use a keyboard extender or tray, if necessary, to ensure the proper keyboard height and appropriate distance from the monitor.
  • Align your wrists and forearms. The wrists should be straight, not tilted up or down. A padded wrist rest can help you to maintain this position.

Mouse:

  • Your forearm, wrist and hand should be straight when using the mouse. Your arm should stay close to the body. You should not have to extend or elevate your arm to use the mouse.
  • Try a padded mouse rest if this helps you to maintain straight wrists.

Accessories:  

  • If you will be typing or entering data from a document, use a document holder Ė either freestanding or attached to the monitor. It should be set at eye level, the same distance from your eye as the monitor, to avoid constant changes in focus or neck strain.
  • If you often talk on the telephone while typing or doing other tasks with your hands, use a telephone headset to minimize neck strain.