Ergonomics 4 Schools

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Office Work

What is office work?

An office is a room where professional duties and administrative work is carried out. The details of the work depend on the type of business that you are involved in, but will usually include using computers, communicating with others by telephone or fax, keeping records and files etc. Features of an office such as people, space, equipment, furniture and the environment, must fit together well for workers to feel healthy and comfortable and to be able to work efficiently and productively. This is where ergonomics can help!

Office work

Ergonomics can be applied to offices in several ways. You could look at how the office is laid out, including where people sit in relation to equipment, windows, doors and each other. You could check that equipment and furniture is suitable for the type of work that people are doing. This includes seating, desks, computers, printers and anything else that they might use to do their job. You could assess the environment, that is, the temperature, ventilation, lighting, decoration. All these aspects of an office are considered in relation to the individuals in the office with emphasis on their safety, health, comfort - and productivity!
Much of the following information and advice can be applied to anywhere that you might use computers - at school, at home, in the library. After all, healthy computing is good for all of us.

Office layout plansGeneral Office Layout

This includes arranging where people need to sit that work in the office, according to who they work with - their teams perhaps, what equipment they need to do their job and what sort of working environment they need. Some people may need a very quiet area to work, for example if they need to concentrate, and could be put in a separate area away from noisy people and equipment. Other people may need to work creatively in teams, and would be better off in a relaxed, open plan area. If the office has shared equipment, such as printers and scanners, they need to be easily accessible to everyone who needs to use them. You also need to think about the facilities that people will need for storage. They need somewhere to put their outdoor clothes and a secure place for handbags. People might need their own filing cabinets or shelves. Shared items such as computer manuals, stationery supplies, etc., need to be stored so that everyone can access them.

In large or busy open plan offices, the layout needs to be planned very carefully, as many people with different jobs will be using the area. Also, if space is restricted, the layout becomes important to ensure that the working space isn't too cramped, and people don't get in each other's way. Access and emergency routes need to be defined and laid out to ensure that people can move around the office easily, and quickly if necessary.


Choosing furniture and equipment


Office seatSeats should be adjustable so that the range of users can be accommodated comfortably and they provide support where it's needed. Seats should have an adjustable seat pan height, backrest height and backrest tilt, at least. Computer seats are available with more features than this, such as seat pan tilt, many of which make sitting more comfortable.  Armrests can provide good support but should be removable if you don't want them, or they restrict posture, such as when they stop you getting as close to the desk as you would like. Seats should have a 5-castor base for stability.

It is also important that everyone understands how to adjust their seats and what posture they should be aiming for - some seats can be quite complicated! Make sure that the seat comes with clear instructions.

See the seating topic for more information about seat design.

Office desk Desks

Desks are usually a standard height of about 720mm. This is fine for most people, but you should check to make sure that all users can be seated comfortably at a desk of this height. Particularly short or tall people may need an adjustable-height desk.

You need enough desk space for your paperwork,  the computer (monitor, keyboard and  mouse) and any additional equipment that you need to do your job. 

The desk should not have any obstructions underneath like drawers or supports, that force you to sit in uncomfortable positions. Computer desks should also have a fairly 'thin' top - not like a kitchen worktop! This is to make sure that you can get your legs under without squashing your thighs.

Some desks are 'radial' - L-shaped with a curve in the middle where you sit. These can be quite comfortable for computer work as you can have everything you need close at hand in an arc around you.


Computer The computer hardware should also be chosen so that using it is unlikely to cause injury or discomfort. The type of problems that people may get from using their computers are often described as Repetitive Strain Injuries ('RSI'), Work Related Upper Limb Disorders (WRULDs) or  musculoskeletal disorders/discomfort. The main risks to users from computer hardware are probably the keyboard, mouse (or other input device such as a tracker ball) and monitor. 

The keyboard and mouse should be chosen so that they help you to keep a 'neutral posture' in your hands, wrists and forearms. A neutral posture is one that feels most natural and comfortable and is not harmful. For more information about hand and wrist structure and posture see the hand tools topic. The keyboard and mouse should also be easy to use; it should be obvious how they work, and using them should not require any physical effort (for instance, you don't want a mouse with buttons that require force to press).

The monitor display should be clear and easy to read, adjustable for colour, contrast, brightness, tilt and swivel, and have no flicker.


Posture and workstation layout

It is very important that when you use a computer you are able to work in a posture which is comfortable and which does not place your long-term health at risk. For instance, sitting in a slumped posture can cause back pain and even long-term back injury. The key to avoiding this is to make sure that you are able to work in what ergonomists call a 'neutral posture'. This makes sure that no unnecessary strain is placed on the nerves, muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones. To get this right, the layout of the computer equipment on the desk is important, as well as the adjustment of the chair. When you sit in front of a computer, you should aim for a neutral posture. Let's split this down into steps to make it easier to think about:

1. Your arms and legs Make sure that your upper arms are vertical (or close to it), and your forearms are horizontal (or close to it) so that there is approximately a right angle at your elbows. With your shoulders relaxed, your elbows should just about be level with the desk surface or very slightly above. If not, you should adjust your chair to get you to the height that allows this. (When you reach just below your seat, there is usually a lever that you can use to adjust the chair up or down. You usually need to take your weight off the seat while you lift the lever, to raise the seat height. Push the lever and remain seated to lower). Now check your feet - are they dangling in mid-air or flat on the floor and well-supported? If they are dangling or don't reach the floor comfortably when you sit right back in your seat, this is not good for your circulation and you need a footrest.

Good posture2. Your back While we're thinking about your chair, check your seat pan and backrest. Sit right back in the seat and make sure that the seat pan is not pushing into the backs of your knees (this is also bad for your circulation!). If it is, and there's no sliding adjustment to push it back towards the backrest (often found under the seat), or the backrest can't be moved in and out (adjustment may be at the base of the backrest), then the seat pan is too long for you and you should get a different chair. When you sit back in your seat with your back upright or slightly reclined (to maintain its natural 'S curve'), does the thicker padding towards the bottom of the backrest (the lumbar support) fit right into the small of your back? If not, adjust the backrest height so that it does (there is often a knob on the back of the chair to adjust the backrest height). Adjust the angle of the backrest so that you are sitting slightly back from the vertical (sometimes this is done by another lever under the seat and you need to be seated and push back on the backrest to change the angle). For more information about the structure of your back and good posture, see the manual handling topic.

3. Your head and neck Aim to keep your neck vertical and relaxed and your head upright. Look straight ahead at the screen, or slightly down (never up - too much muscle use!). Adjust the height of the screen if necessary. Some flat screens are height-adjustable but you may have to use something like a monitor stand to raise the height of a 'normal' monitor. (Be careful, they are heavy! Get someone else to lift it or to help. Make sure you can lift it close to your body and with the screen towards you.) Adjust the distance of the screen so that you can read the characters clearly. If you find yourself leaning forward and peering at the screen, perhaps it is too far away! On the other hand, don't have it so close that you feel you have to make an effort to focus! About arm's length is about right but don't forget that this depends on how long your arms are!  So make sure that it is a comfortable distance for you.

4. Your wrists and hands Keep your wrists straight, in line with your forearms, and relaxed. Place your keyboard in front of you with enough room to rest your hands when you are not typing. Make sure that your keyboard is as flat as possible to reduce the upwards angle of your wrists. Positioning the keyboard away from your body will help to reduce the sideways bending of your wrists too. Bring the mouse as close to the keyboard as you can so that you don't have to stretch to use it. Avoid resting your wrists on the hard edge of the desk and putting pressure on the soft tissues on the inside of your wrist. For more information about the structure and posture of your hands and wrists, see the hand tools topic.

Try thisCheck now to see if you are sitting this way. If not, is there anything you can do to improve your posture? Is your seat adjustable? If it is, do you know how to adjust it? Try it out! If your chair is not adjustable, is there any way you can make it more comfortable? Can you use a cushion to give your back some support? Do your feet comfortably reach the floor? If not, can you get a footrest or something equivalent (like a lever arch file!)?
Are you sitting straight in front of your monitor and keyboard? Is your mouse close to the keyboard? Are they comfortably positioned in front of you so that you don't have to stretch to reach either of them? Can you view the screen by looking straight ahead or slightly down? If you answer 'no' to any of these questions about the computer, is there anything you can do to re-position the equipment to make it more comfortable to use?

Remember! Any posture, whether 'good' or 'bad', will become uncomfortable after a while - we are not designed to sit still. Back pain is becoming more common among people who spend a large part of their day sitting still. Our bodies work much better when we stimulate our circulation and bodily functions through movement, so get up out of your chair and stretch as often as you can!


The Environment

Another feature of an office is the environment, or surroundings, in which you are working. This includes temperature, ventilation, humidity, lighting, noise etc. 

LightingLighting is very important. Most people like to be able to see daylight as it gives them a feeling about how the day is going outside and natural light is also thought to make people feel better too. Monitors need to be positioned facing away from windows so that there is no glare or reflection on the screen. Patches of bright light on the screen make characters harder to read and can force you into uncomfortable positions as you try to see around the bright patch. Blinds can be used at windows to cut down glare. Glare and reflections can come from overhead lighting too, if the screen is tilted too far back. If the monitor can't be positioned so that there is no glare or reflection, an anti-glare screen may help, but this should be used as a last resort as it cuts down overall screen brightness (which may not be able to be counteracted by adjusting the screen brightness and contrast) and it needs frequent cleaning! Most people also like to be able to control the artificial lighting levels in their work area but individual control is not often possible in large offices. Different amounts of light are needed for paperwork and screen work as screens emit their own light. In this case, individual desk lights may be better for some people. For more information about light quality and human reaction to it, see the light topic.

Temperature and ventilationTemperature and ventilation are also important, and are frequently complained about! It is clearly important to be warm enough, but temperature and humidity can also make a difference to how alert or tired you feel by the end of the day. Your response to the temperature of your environment depends not only upon air temperature but also upon radiant temperatures (such as sunshine coming through a window), air movement and humidity, as well as the type of clothing you are wearing and what you are doing. Humans produce about 100 Watts of heat for typical office activities, and computer terminals about twice that much or more depending upon type. People with disabilities may have different requirements due to the disability itself, medicines that may affect their temperature regulation, and the thermal properties of aids, such as wheelchairs. Remember that some people will not be able to move away from an uncomfortable or stressful environment. Personal control systems where individuals have local control over the air movement and temperature of their own environment - by the use of fans or heaters etc., can help. For more information about human temperature regulation, see the temperature topic.

NoiseNoise in offices can affect concentration, can be an irritation, and can be a source of stress to some people. With the development of quieter equipment, especially printers, noise levels in offices have generally decreased. However, in open-plan offices it can still be a problem with the noise mainly due to people! For example, telephones left ringing at an unattended desk, conversations being held in areas where people are trying to concentrate. Screens and good quality flooring and ceiling tiles can help to absorb noise. For more information about human hearing and response to noise, see the noise topic.


Other Considerations


Take a break It is very important that you take breaks from your work during the day. Working at a computer involves sitting in a fixed posture and, however 'good' that posture is, our bodies are not designed to stay still in one place for long. It is better to take a break from time to time. Ideally, you should take a short break, say 5 minutes, about once an hour, and you should get up and walk about, perhaps even do some quick stretching exercises during that break, to give your body a rest from the fixed sitting posture.


Rest your eyesYou should make sure that you have your eyesight tested regularly, and if you need glasses, they should be appropriate for computer work. Your optician will be able to advise you about this. Wearing bifocals can be a real problem as people want to read the screen through the lower section of the glasses, and can end up 'peering' up at the screen with a very awkward head and neck angle (neck back and chin forward). Such people might need a special pair of glasses for computer work. Your eyes need as much of a break from looking at the screen as your body does from being in a fixed posture. You can give your eyes a rest by simply looking away from the screen - look out of the window!  Do this as often as you remember. If you have a long document to read, print it out - it is easier on your eyes to read from paper than a screen - it is also 20-30% faster!


Get some trainingFinally, the best equipment in the world won't help unless you understand what you are trying to achieve in terms of best practice for your posture and method of work. Training is very important to make sure that you know how you should be sitting, how to arrange your furniture and desk, how to adjust your chair and what else you can do to protect your health (by taking breaks etc.). The Health and Safety Executive consider this to be so important that the provision of training is included in the Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations.


Legal requirements for office work

The Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992 apply to computer use at work. There is guidance from the Health and Safety Executive to accompany them which contains a great deal of good information on all the areas above, plus information about the actual legal requirements. It is quite easy to read and readily available from good book shops and libraries. A new version came out in 2003, which replaces the 1992 version. Look for Work with Display Screen Equipment - Guidance on Regulations, L26, 2003, HSE Books, ISBN 0 7176 2582 6.

The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations (1992) covers working environments, including temperature, and workspaces including the amount of space individual workers should be allocated. Working with VDUsAgain, the HSE has provided guidance to these regulations. Look for Workplace Health, Safety and Welfare approved code of practice, L24, 1992 (amendments in 1996), HSE Books, ISBN 0 7176 04136.

The HSE also produces leaflets on the basics of computer work and workstations. Single copies are free from HSE Books, and the leaflets can be downloaded from their web site as pdf files. Look for Working with VDUs, INDG36(rev1), 1998, HSE Books.


Office (and workstation) FAQs

Q. How can I use ergonomics when designing an internet cafe? Answer

Q. Where can I get more information about children and VDUs/workstations? Answer

Q. What improvements do you suggest for a small computer room that has the wires of its computers out in the open on top of workstations? Answer

Q. I'm designing a desk and I don't know how to write about the ergonomics for it. Please can you help? Answer

Q. What is the correlation between a stint at the computer and the ability of the eye to regain its full use? Answer

Q. I need to tell my grandparents how to set up a home office - furniture they will need, any electrical problems that they may have, protection from viruses etc. Answer

Q. When setting up an ICT room with 32 computers (4 blocks x 8 computers) what number/type of printers would you recommend and how many computers would share each printer? Answer

Q. I want to design a new keyboard to fit Indonesian people. What factors make a keyboard more comfortable?  Answer

Q. What are the ergonomics of a computer mouse, and how do they apply to it?  Answer

Q. I don't have any money to buy footrests, monitor stands etc? What can I use instead?  Answer

Pheasant, S (1991) Ergonomics, Work and Health. London: Macmillan

Content: Ann Brooks, Tina Worthy, Ken Parsons
Images: IMSI's MasterClips Collection