Ergonomics in the workplace

Many people will have heard of ‘ergonomics’ (or human factors) and many will have their own idea of what it is all about. Some will have encountered ‘ergonomic chairs’, ‘ergonomic keyboards’, or other furniture and equipment with the label ‘ergonomics’. Sometimes the label is justified but, on other occasions, it seems little more than a useful marketing tool.
Ergonomics (or human factors) is concerned with the understanding of the interactions among human and other elements of a system, in order to optimise wellbeing (including the risk of injury) and overall system performance. In the office ‘system’ this can cover physical, environmental and psychological aspects of office work and its organisation, not just the desks and computers. This article will outline the physical elements of the office but it is important to recognise that this is only part of the story.

Why bother with ergonomics?
A survey of over 1,300 office computer users, from a total of 130 organisations from throughout the UK, carried out by the Institute of Occupational Medicine (IOM) for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), found that nearly three quarters of respondents reported one or more musculoskeletal symptom.  According to HSE figures, in 2007/08 an estimated 539,000 people in Great Britain, who worked in the last year, suffered from a musculoskeletal disorder they believed to have been caused or made worse by their work.  Between them they accounted for an estimated 8.8 million working days lost, averaging an estimated 16.4 days off per person affected.
It is clear that, in office-based work as with many other sectors, problems such as back and neck pain and upper limb disorders are a major cause of sickness absence from work, with many other people functioning at a reduced capability whilst remaining at work.
Although the extent to which computer work actually causes such problems is unclear there is no doubt that furniture and equipment which is poorly designed or wrongly used can contribute to symptoms and, equally, that using well-designed equipment correctly can help to avoid or reduce them.

Where do I start?
In the UK, the Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations (DSE Regulations) and their Schedule of Minimum Requirements provide a good starting point. However, the Schedule is best thought of as a list of ingredients, the important part being how well you mix/use those ingredients. Although well-designed furniture and equipment is important, how they are used to create an individual’s workstation is critical.
We’ll start with the chair – probably in most offices the most-used item – although perhaps we should question whether sitting is necessarily best. Any chair must have seat height adjustment and a backrest adjustable for height and angle. These are the legal minimum. Part of ergonomics is recognising that people come in all shapes and sizes and one-size-fits-all doesn’t work. In addition to these adjustments the seat itself should preferably be made available in different depths (front to back). One effective way of achieving this is to provide chairs where this aspect is adjustable. The backrest should have good, supportive lumbar moulding. Again, having this moulding adjustable can be useful, so that it can be changed for size as well as height.
Opinions vary a little over armrests. They can be helpful for those with mobility problems in getting up and down from their seat – and for those who find it hard to stay awake. Slumping sideways with one elbow on an armrest, twisting because the armrests stop the chair from turning by hitting the desk, or sitting too low for the same reason are just a few of the problems they can cause. On balance therefore, unless there is a specific need, my advice would be to not choose them and to use the money saved on buying a better chair.

Most desks are currently fixed height, within the fairly narrow range allowed by the office furniture standard (BS EN ISO 9241-5).              
Height adjustable desks are advocated by the standard and can provide a greater flexibility, avoiding the need for footrests which are often disliked. Although many such desks provide for a variety of sitting heights, more extreme adjustability accommodates both sitting and standing postures (which can at least be good for those with severe back problems and might actually be a better option for many employees). The desktop should be large enough to accommodate the equipment and other items needed to carry out the work required, enabling the individual to arrange the layout in an appropriate manner. It is not necessary to accommodate the needs of the hoarder who cannot bear to put away (let alone throw out) anything that crosses their desk.
Next, attention turns to the computer itself.  Smaller system units and flat display screens make much more efficient use of space and allow for more flexible arrangements.  Increasingly however, with a more mobile workforce, greater use is being made of laptops and other portable devices, providing the individual with the flexibility to work in the office, at home, on the train or plane, in the hotel or anywhere else their fancy (or their employer) takes them. More will be said about the peripatetic office later. For now, suffice it to say that the laptop computer does not permit an ergonomically sound working posture and, wherever possible, it should be supplemented by at least a separate keyboard and mouse (so that the screen height can be raised appropriately) and, ideally, a separate display screen as well.
Talking of keyboards and mice (and other input devices) these are available in a (sometimes) bewildering variety of shapes and sizes. Some alternative keyboard layouts are also available to replace the ‘qwerty’ board (which was allegedly designed to slow typists down) but these have never generally caught on.             

There is evidence that some people suffering from upper limb problems benefit from a different design of keyboard but, for many, the conventional design and layout is sufficient. Cut-down keyboards (e.g. no separate number pad) or even reversed keyboards (number pad on the left) are available and again can be beneficial for some. Big mice, small mice, joystick mice, mice with (roller) balls can be purchased and again, different sizes, shapes, and methods of function can suit and help different people.  
Other devices such as document holders (again available in a wide variety of shapes and sizes) can also be helpful. Try and choose one which suits how the employee likes to work – they are more likely to use it.

It’s the way that you do it
Giving people suitable and well-designed furniture and equipment is only part of the story. It needs to be correctly set up and used. Again, the DSE Regulations point the way. Employees must be provided with information and training – information on the possible risks of not setting up and using the furniture and equipment correctly; and training on what constitutes that correct set-up and use. Setting it up for them is all very well but, when they come back off holiday to find that someone has used (and re-adjusted) their chair, will they know how to put it right? Well-chosen furniture and equipment, correctly laid out, should allow most people to achieve a comfortable, correct sitting posture. Space doesn’t permit the detailing of that correct posture in this article but there are many useful sources, including the HSE guidance freely available online (
Workplace risk assessments (required under the DSE Regulations) should cover checking that people are able to adopt a suitable posture, preferably by actually observing this rather than relying on them filling in an online form. Where a person has particular problems and symptoms then help should be sought from a professional ergonomist.
A mobile workforce requires a mobile workstation. With hot-desking and other shared workstations becoming increasingly common, good, easy adjustments are important – but a workforce which understands the need for and how to make those adjustments (and is motivated to do so) is even more so. When they are working away from the office this becomes potentially even more essential. Do you do workplace assessments for those working from home?

Points to ponder
There are a number of other important issues which should be addressed. In no particular order they are:
Prevention is better than cure: The DSE Regulations require employers to carry out workplace assessments. Many use online systems for this, relying on the individual and only actually visiting the workstations of those who report problems. Is this adequately fulfilling a preventative role?
Hold your head up: The guidance usually given has the screen placed at or slightly below eye height – where it can most easily be seen. What do most of your employees look at when they are typing?
Good ergonomics doesn’t stop at the office door: Office, home, car hotel, plane, train, wherever an employee is working it is important that they adopt good working practices and postures. Advice and guidance should be given, as well as appropriate equipment (and furniture where practicable).
Work – a moving experience: The human body is designed for movement and, no matter how good a working posture is adopted, that lack of movement will in time lead to problems. Consider the legal requirement for regular breaks. About five minutes every hour is a good rule of thumb although, when working in less than ideal conditions (e.g. when travelling), more frequent breaks are advisable.
Never say never: Finally, nobody should ever be told that they can never use a computer again because of their “disabling illness” (it happens) – try telling that to Professor Stephen Hawking.

Richard Graveling is a fellow of the Institute for Ergonomics and Human Factors and principal ergonomics consultant at the Institute of Occupational Medicine (IOM).

Enquiries about any of the points raised in this article can be directed to him at

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