Skip to Content
Skip to Navigation

Computer Workstation Ergonomics

woman sitting at computerFor many of us, sitting for extended periods of time glaring at a computer screen is an integral part of our daily routine. Yet little do we recognize how significantly the design and arrangement of our computer workstation equipment impacts our health. Improper computer ergonomics is a leading cause of neck and back pain, shoulder fatigue, carpal tunnel, and eye strain. The good news is that these health risks can be prevented with a few simple and inexpensive adjustments to your computer workstation.

Ergonomic don'ts

The following are common ergonomic mistakes that can contribute to musculoskeletal pain and overall working discomfort.

  • Working at an overcrowded desk or workstation
  • Sitting in one position for too long
  • Sitting in an improperly fitting, non-adjustable chair
  • Viewing the monitor at a distance closer than 18" or farther than 30"
  • Viewing the monitor in a well-lit room (most offices are too bright for optimal computer screen viewing)
  • Placing commonly used items out of reach
  • Working without periodic breaks
  • Using an "ergonomic" or "split" keyboard
  • Using wrist rests
  • Utilizing a laptop as one's primary computer for the following reasons:
    • The small keyboards cause strain on the wrists
    • The screen is too close to the user, which causes eye strain
    • The keyboard is connected to the screen; this either causes neck strain
      (when the laptop is placed low enough for good wrist/arm positioning), or
      excessive wrist/arm strain (when the laptop is placed at eye level to prevent
      neck strain)
    • The monitor may be too small and/or lack sufficient resolution to prevent
      eye strain

Optimal monitor placement

Ensuring proper placement of the monitor can help prevent the development of eye strain, neck pain, and shoulder fatigue and improve sitting posture.

Key guidelines:

  • Keep the viewing surface of your monitor clean
  • Position the monitor directly in front of the user with the top of the screen in line with or slightly below eye level
  • Position monitor 20-26" from the user
  • Tilt the top of the monitor back 10-20 degrees
  • Position monitor perpendicular to windows and away from direct lighting to reduce glare
  • If you wear bifocal glasses, pay particular attention to prevent tilting the head to see through the appropriate lens

Optimal keyboard placement

Awkward hand movements associated with improper positioning of the keyboard can lead to carpal tunnel syndrome and pain in the forearms, wrists, and hands. Repetitive movements in such positions put major strain upon the soft tissues.

Key guidelines:

  • Adjust keyboard height so that arms and shoulder are relaxed at the sides
  • Forearms should be parallel to the floor
  • Mouse should be placed adjacent to keyboard
  • Hands should rest in one's lap when not entering data

"Ergonomic" keyboards, also known as "split keyboards," can actually reduce productivity and be harmful for non-10-fingered-trained-touch-typists. Vertical hand posture (your wrists straight rather than tilted up) is probably more important for longterm use than the ulnar deviation that is partially corrected with split keyboards.   Recent studies "do not support the use of split keyboards over standard flat keyboards to reduce discomfort in the workplace. Further research is needed to evaluate if subgroups of keyboard users mightbenefit." (Work. 2013 Nov 27)

Wrist rests are declining in popularity, but research studies haven't demonstrated substantial benefits for wrist rests. Indeed, a wrist rest can actually increase pressure inside the carpal tunnel by compressing the undersurface of the wrist.  Particularly, one should avoid soft and squishy wrist rests because these will contour to your wrist, restrict the freedom of movement of your hands, and encourage more lateral deviation during typing. Your hands must be able to glide above the surface of a wrist rest during typing, don't lock them in place on the rest while you type.

Optimal mouse placement

  • Place the mouse directly in your immediate reach zone. Placing the mouse too far in front or to one side can cause wrist, forearm, and elbow discomfort.
  • Make sure your wrists are not bending upwards. To avoid this, adjust the chair so that the desk is slightly below the elbows.
  • Try out other input devices (e.g. touchpads, trackballs). You may find that certain devices are more comfortable than others.

Optimal lighting

Poor lighting can cause eye strain, burning and itchy eyes, and blurred vision. Glare resulting from improper placement of the light source can exacerbate these symptoms.

Key guidelines:

  • Keep drapes/blinds closed to reduce glare.
  • Avoid intense light in your field of vision.
  • Light source and windows should be at a 90 degree angle from the computer screen (to minimize glare)
  • Minimize overhead lighting
  • If necessary, a monitor shield can be used to minimize glare.

Preventing eye strain

Eye strain is perhaps the most common ergonomic problem associated with frequent computer use. Symptoms of eye strain can range from burning, itchy eyes to more systemic signs such as headaches and increased sensitivity to light. You can prevent eye strain using the following tips.

  • Take frequent, small breaks. Look up from the computer screen often and focus on a distant object.
  • Use indirect, ambient lighting and an adjustable light source at the desk. Make sure the light source is not directly in the field of vision.
  • Check with your eye doctor to make sure you are using the proper eyewear required for your work. Some prescriptions may not be adequate for computer work.
  • Keep the monitor clean.
  • Follow the key guidelines for optimal monitor placement and lighting.

Optimal chair set-up

Although it may seem relaxing, sitting actually puts significant stress on the back. Blood pooling in the legs can also pose health risks for users prone to clotting abnormalities.

Key guidelines:

  • Change sitting positions frequently. Practice "dynamic sitting," moving
    often, using a chair that swivels and has wheels, and trying to avoid using the
    backrest.
  • If possible, take brief standing and/or walking breaks every 20-30 mins.
  • Make the chair back has a lumbar support. For extra lower back support, use a lumbar cushion or a pillow. Sit upright in the chair with the back against the support.
  • Adjust the height of the chair so that the feet rest flat on the floor. Thighs should be parallel to the floor. Use a foot rest if feet do not reach the floor.
  • Adjust the height of the arm rests so that the shoulders are relaxed.
  • Make sure there is enough room beneath the desk for the legs to move around comfortably.

When we consider what it means to be "healthy", we typically think of following a good diet and exercise regimen. However, in this day and age, it is equally important to remember to be "ergonomically" healthy.

For more information

For more information on how to do so, check out the following websites:

Sources

"Computer Workstation Ergonomics". Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. Available at http://www.cdc.gov/od/ohs/Ergonomics/compergo.htm. Accessed May 10, 2008.

"Computer Workstation Ergonomics." Yale University. Available at http://www.yale.edu/ergo/cw.htm. Accessed May 10, 2008.

"Computer Workstations". U.S. Department of Labor, OHSA. Available at http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/etools/computerworkstations/. Accessed May 10, 2008.

 "Easy Ergonomics for Desktop Computer Users." California Department of Industrial Relations. Available at http://www.dir.ca.gov/dosh/dosh_publications/computerergo.pdf. Accessed May 10, 2008.

"Ergonomics for Computer Workstations." National Institutes of Health, Division of Occupational Health and Safety. Available at http://dohs.ors.od.nih.gov/ergo_computers.htm. Accessed May 10, 2008.

Authored by: Hall Health Center Peer Health Educators
Reviewed by: Hall Health Center Sports Medicine Clinic staff, February 2014