Ergonomics: Designing Your Work Station to Work with You

by Kathy Wechsler on November 1, 2005 - 10:09am

QUEST Vol. 12, No. 6

Ergonomics is literally the study of work, so for this article, we’ll use the word “work” to describe extensive periods of time spent at your desk, whether you’re working, studying, typing really long love letters or playing computer games.

Examples of both a wrong, and a right, work station set-up


Ergonomic design is the technique of simplifying a task, allowing you to complete that task as efficiently as possible without pain or discomfort, says Pat Gromak, an occupational therapist (OT) for the MDA clinic at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.

“The ergonomist aims to optimize the efficiency of workers by ensuring that the demands of the tasks that make up a job do not exceed the capacities and capabilities of the worker. This includes workers with disabilities,” says Robert W. Stuthridge, senior ergonomist and president of Integrated Ergonomics in Straughn, Ind.

He agrees that ergonomics is about assessing your work station, determining if there are problems and figuring out how to solve them.

Technique is the first step. Gromak says you may not have to buy anything at all.

If rearranging your work station doesn’t improve your discomfort level, your OT or ergonomist may suggest changing to ergonomically designed equipment. Gromak recommends not going overboard. These devices aren’t one-size-fits-all.

What's in it for me?

Ergonomics is important for everyone, but even more so if you have a neuromuscular disease, Gromak says. In neuromuscular disease, the underlying muscle weakness and lack of coordination prevent movement and control. Muscles also become easily fatigued.

If you have weakness in your upper and lower limbs, you need to conserve energy, says Stuthridge, who specializes in ergonomics for people with disabilities.

People with neuromuscular diseases have more risk for injury “because they may not have all the muscle groups working in a coordinated fashion, so they overuse the stronger muscles,” says Gromak, who has 40 years of OT experience.

Getting ergonomic

Anyone who makes repetitive movements throughout the day runs the risk of overstressing some muscles. Ergonomists recommend the following techniques for avoiding pain and discomfort while working.

Since we’re all different, these guidelines won’t be perfect for everyone. Talk it over with your OT or an ergonomist who has experience with people who have disabilities similar to yours.

Get close to your desk

If you use a wheelchair, experts recommend that your desk be between 32 and 34 inches high so your chair can fit under it and you can sit right up to the desk. A height-adjustable table is even better.

Sitting too far from the keyboard forces you to hunch your shoulders to get close to your task. This wears out your body and causes back and shoulder pain, Gromak says.

You should pull in straight to the desk and sit up straight with your feet on the floor or your footrests.

“If you’re using a wheelchair, clearance for your knees is essential, so the desk height should allow for this, even at the cost of having to raise your arms a little to type,” Stuthridge says.

Your chair should have desk arms or armrests that can be flipped back or away to give you easy access to your work station. If you have a joystick, it should be able to swing away. If it doesn’t, you can use a keyboard tray to bring the keyboard closer to your body, and the joystick will fit at the right or left of the tray.

Maybe you don’t like keyboard trays. If your desk’s height is 34 inches, the joystick can fit under it. But then the keyboard may be too high and put your arms in an awkward position.

You can work with an OT or ergonomist to figure out the best compromise for you.

DBH Adaptive Technology manufactures computer work stations that are fully adjustable and wheelchair friendly. Features such as motorized monitor lifts with swing arms, and mounts for telephones, scanners and other devices are available. Prices range from $1,230 to $3,000.

Another option is using desk elevators such as Deskalators from Garner Industries. A pack of four sells for $16.

Put your computer monitor in the right spot

BigKey keyboard
BigKeys keyboards have large keys for people with motor limitations.

Your monitor should be centered in front of you and placed 18 to 28 inches from your face, depending on your eyesight, experts say. The monitor’s height should allow your eyes to be in line with the top third of the screen.

If your monitor’s too far away or too high or low, you may have to strain your neck and shoulders to be able to read what’s on the screen.

To elevate the monitor, you can get a monitor arm or pedestal. The Organizer Monitor Stand from Sanford offers storage as well as elevation, and retails for $26. Deskalators can also be used to raise the monitor.

The keyboard is key

While using the keyboard, make sure your arms are supported with your elbows on your chair’s armrests and the keyboard height is level with the underside of the elbows. It should be about 31 inches from the floor. Keyboard trays can easily be adjusted to your preference.

Stuthridge recommends that the bend in your elbow be about 90 degrees, and your hands, wrists and forearms should be parallel to the surface of the keys. Don’t continuously bend your wrist up or down.

Having your wrists in the wrong position can cause injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis or tendonitis. Avoid these disorders by using wrist rests while typing. Kensington makes wrist rests that range from $16 to $50.

Your OT or ergonomist may suggest an ergonomically designed keyboard such as the Microsoft Natural Keyboard Elite for $30 or the Maxim Split Adjustable Keyboard from Kinesis for $149. These keyboards put your hands in a more natural position.

You simply glide your hands over this touchpad from Adesso.
The BIGtrack
The BIGtrack trackball is a large, easy-to-use mouse.

Keyboards with easy-to-see, large keys are available from BigKeys in colors or black and white. Prices range from $159 to $167.

Get the right mouse

Your computer mouse should be within easy reach. Always have your arm supported and keep your hand relaxed on the mouse.

Right-handed users should place the mouse on the right side, directly in front of the right shoulder to avoid muscle strain.

There are many different kinds of mice: cordless, trackball and touchpad, to name a few. BigKeys also makes a BIGtrack trackball that has a large yellow ball and two big blue buttons, perfect for people who have difficulty with fine motor skills. It retails for $75.

Adesso makes a variety of touchpads that make controlling the cursor easy. Prices range from $39 to $69.

Save your eyes

Most monitors come with a matte finish to reduce glare, but it’s still smart to adjust window blinds or position your monitor so that the light source won’t cause a glare, Gromak says. To stop glare, you can also buy a glare filter for your monitor or tilt it up or down by up to 7 degrees.

Fellowes manufactures glare filters to reduce glare and enhance image quality. These filters easily attach to any monitor and start at $98.

Eyestrain is also caused by working with a type font size that’s too small, she says. And try changing your monitor’s color display with the color intensity and background hue, Gromak says. You want a sharp color contrast to make it easy to see.

Not being able to see the display usually makes you adopt an awkward forward-leaning position, which strains your neck and can injure your muscular skeletal system or cause it to collapse, Stuthridge says.

Never stare at the screen for too long. Gromak suggests looking away every 15 to 20 minutes for 30 seconds. Blink and use different eye movements during this time.

Don't sit in one position for too long

When you work on your computer for hours at a time, your joints don’t get the opportunity to stretch, making your muscles tighten around certain joints, causing them to become stiff from lack of bending, Gromak explains.

The Premium   Glare Lite View filter from Fellowes
The Premium Glare Lite View filter from Fellowes reduces glare by more than 99 percent to relieve eye strain and fatigue.

Staying in the same position causes you to hold certain muscles tightly, which can lead to soft tissue trauma such as the dreaded carpal tunnel syndrome, nerve impingement and tendonitis, aka tennis elbow. Gromak recommends changing your position every 15 to 20 minutes.

Even if you can’t get up from your work station and walk around, you can make small changes to your routine to prevent damage to your muscles. If possible, lean from side to side and shift your weight forward and backward. Also, it’s important to relax your neck muscles by moving your neck around.

Put everyday items within reach

Put frequently used items such as telephone, pens or books within easy reach. If you have limited movement or fatigue, stretching for something is likely to throw you off balance.

Extensive reaching can cause discomfort in the neck, shoulders and upper limbs, says Stuthridge, who became interested in ergonomics in 1991. Neck and back pain are also potential risks.

“If you’re not coordinated and you have to reach for a farther distance, you’re less able to support your reach,” Gromak says. “You could drop or bump things, and it just makes it a whole lot more inefficient for you.”

Use a telephone headset instead of reaching — it prevents slouching, and frees up your hands for typing or taking notes.

Putting it all together

You can get all the items mentioned in this article at office supply and computer stores and for either personal computers or Macintosh. Or, surf the Web to find companies that manufacture these products. But keep in mind, it’s always wise to try before you buy.

Gromak recommends calling your OT or ergonomist if you feel any signs of discomfort while working. MDA will fund an OT assessment once a year, and most insurance providers will cover evaluations with a doctor’s prescription. But, Stuthridge says, for ergonomic improvements on the job, it’s the employer’s responsibility to get the changes made.

An ergonomically designed work station isn’t just about the position of the keyboard or mouse, he adds. Every piece of the puzzle works together to keep you happy, healthy and efficient.

(800) 467-1195

BigKeys Company
(800) 249-5397

DBH Adaptive Technology
(800) 852-3026

(800) 945-4545

Garner Industries
(888) 562-3271

(415) 442-4038
(800) 235-6708

Kinesis Corp.
(800) 454-6374

Microsoft Corp.
(800) 642-7676

(800) 323-0749

Thanks to Walsh Bros. Office Environments of Tucson, Ariz., for assistance with the opening photos.

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