Ergonomics is the study of how humans interact with their environment (usually in the workplace).  This science involves the principles of engineering, anatomy, anthropometrics and a host of other disciplines which are applied to the concepts of designing machinery, workstations, equipment, signage, alarm systems, and other human-machine interfaces.  The core principle of ergonomics is “how can we design or adjust our working environment to best fit our human mechanical design?”

As we are not all physically assembled the same way or of the same size, there is no such thing as “one size fits all” in ergonomic applications.  This concept is especially true when it comes to evaluating workstations and computer task areas.  While there are a number of guidelines available through various technical resources (see the list at the end of the article), there are some basic concepts that should be understood and applied to workstation setup and use.  These basic concepts are summarized below.

Keep It Aligned

Like your car, if the steering is out of alignment, you are going to experience premature wear on your tires.  So, if you are turning your head to look at your monitor, you are not in alignment.  You should be seated directly in front of your monitor, with a document stand immediately to the left or right of your monitor.

Keep It Level

Generally speaking, your lap, arms, wrists and head position should be level.  While slight angles may be comfortable, keep in mind that the greater the angle, the greater the risk for musculoskeletal disorders.  The two most common opportunities for improvement are keyboard/mouse height and monitor height.  Adjustable keyboard trays and monitor stands are inexpensive and very effective.

Keep It Within Reach

If you find yourself constantly reaching for your keyboard or mouse (beyond 6” or so), you are not only violating the “keep it level” rule, you are placing extra stress and strain on various muscle groups.  Where and when possible, move the keyboard and mouse closer to your reach, and move your seating position closer to the workstation.  Regarding monitors, the general distance from your eyes to the monitor should be 18” – 24.”  Too close or too far can cause eyestrain.  Some general dimensions for workstation design are shown in the diagram.  Keep in mind that these are not “one size fits all” numbers, but general guidelines to consider.

Keep It Moving

Even though you may have the perfect workstation design, the body gets tired of being in one position for extended periods of time.  Take routine breaks and stretch your body parts.  See the diagram for a number of quick and easy stretches that can be used to help reduce the overall stress and strain to your body from prolonged posturing positions.

While a professional ergonomic workstation evaluation is a little more complicated than the approach described here, the same principles still apply.  Pay attention to your body. You may be getting some signals that you need to adjust your workstation.  Barring any pre-existing conditions or other illnesses and injuries, improper workstation use and design may cause you to experience tingling, numbness, aching, limited range of motion and a host of other symptoms. 

An Ergonomic Checklist follows, which is a tool made available below to enable you to complete a self evaluation of your workstation. We encourage you to make any necessary adjustments, and review the resources provided by OSHA and the CDC. You may also speak to your supervisor and/or human resources professional to see if workstation evaluation is warranted.

Ergonomic Checklist

checklist box Head & Neck - upright and relaxed, balanced between shoulders
checklist box Hands & Wrists - relaxed and straight without bending up, down or sideways
checklist box Knees - at about hip level (may be slightly lower or higher depending on comfort preference)
checklist box Eyes - about an arm's length or more from the monitor screen
checklist box Low Back - supported by the chair's forward curve or lumbar support
checklist box Feet - flat on the floor or footrest, legs are uncrossed and can move freely under the desk
checklist box Monitor - top of the screen is slightly below eye level
checklist box Primary work tools - are within easy reach without leaning forward or twisting
checklist box Document holder - close to the computer screen and at the same height
checklist box Keyboard tray - in place, adjustable, used; mouse holder attached or nearby