Second in a three part series of articles on providing an ergonomically safe computer work environment that minimizes risks for cumulative trauma disorders (CTDs) or repetitive stress injuries (RSIs). We discussed last post on how workers can help alleviate some of the risks of developing RSIs through their work style by changing posture, habits and recognizing their own health risk factors. However, the burden of safety lies not with the worker, but mainly on the employer to provide a safe and healthy work environment.

With the high costs of RSIs costing U.S. employers $80 billion in medical expenses and worker's compensation claims along with 31+ days of lost work time each year, employers cannot afford to ignore the environmental and equipment needs of computer users. For a little more research work, money and willingness to look outside the typical retail office supply source, employers can minimize the risk of not only the actual costs but the downtime too.

There is a set of voluntary technical standards, called the ANSI/HFES American National Standard for Human Factors Engineering of Computer Workstations that shows how the human body and the equipment in a computer workstation interact. These standards have helped us and other furniture companies, like Herman Miller, Inc. design and develop ergonomically correct products, but can also help employers set criteria for selecting the proper furniture and accessories to create a safe work environment.

Tips on Healthier Equipment & Furniture Selection

  • Posture conditions are of utmost importance when selecting furniture. Workers of all sizes should be comfortable, supported, easily able to shift or sit in variety of positions and knees should clear any low work surface with the feet flat on the ground.
  • Adjustable work surfaces are costly, but adjustable keyboard or laptop trays are a necessity to place the keys at the optimum angle and height to prevent any bend in the wrist. This is the least expensive way to provide an ergonomically correct workstation.
  • Keyboard trays or laptop surfaces should move up and down, side to side and slide out of the way.
  • Don't forget about the mouse. It needs to be placed at the same height as the keyboard.
  • Wrist rests are controversial because workers can become too dependent and bend the wrist to reach keys or press down too hard if the wrist rest is too soft. This is one to leave up to worker preference and buy a variety for testing.
  • Alternative keyboards may be a worthwhile investment for certain office groups, such as accounting where a larger number pad may be helpful. CAD environments may find pen and tablets more ergonomic and better suited to design work.
  • Chairs should always be height and tilt adjustable and armrests should move out of the way, raise above or drop low enough to allow workers to get as close to the work surface as possible.
  • Chairs should always have arm rests to relieve the strain from the shoulders and upper arms.
  • Test drive a chair and always check the chair with the desk being used! Most contract furniture manufacturers or dealers have chairs that you can borrow for a day or week, or just buy one initially. This way you can allow workers of all shapes and sizes to provide feedback before committing.
  • Be willing to buy more than one chair type. Chairs are a very personal fit to body size, work environment and work style.
  • Leave the instructions or hang tags on all chairs or adjustable accessories so that workers can learn about features and adjustments that can help them with comfort or work style.

Although not a traditional part of the ergonomic guidelines, color and pattern of the furniture and environment should be considered as well. A work surface that is too light or shiny like a glass surface, might reflect light or color back onto the computer screen creating glare or color perception issues. This does not mean you should select black, grey or bland beige everything! Color, pattern and texture can provide much needed visual stimulation and areas for the eyes to rest while computing for long hours. Pattern and color doesn't have to cost more, but it can make an environment much more comfortable for long work hours.

Remember prevention is ultimately less costly than the cure!