Ergonomics in the Workplace

Ergonomics is defined as "the study of how people behave in relationship to their work and workplace."  The basic principle of ergonomics is that we fit the job to the person, not the person to the job.  This concept may mean designing your work area so items are within reach and easy to see.  Ergonomics also means lessening the impact of repetitive movements (such as data keystroking), and the use of good posture.  Today, ergonomics is recognized as a vital element in preventing injuries, improving conditions, and streamlining productivity.

OSHA is now making available a working draft of a proposed ergonomics protection standard that the agency has provided to small business representatives. As required under the Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act, OSHA is conferring with small businesses about how its working draft ergonomics proposal might affect them before publishing a proposed rule in the Federal Register.  However, because of the importance of the issue of ergonomics, OSHA is making the working draft widely available.  It can be accessed on OSHA’s site on the World Wide Web: 

The draft is a “work-in-progress.”  Specific provisions could change dramatically before a proposed ergonomics program standard is published in the Federal Register later this year. OSHA must also prepare a series of economic, risk and other analyses supporting the proposal.  Then the working draft and accompanying analyses will undergo a series of reviews.  After those reviews, OSHA will publish a proposed rule and provide many opportunities for public comment.


Work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSDs) are now a leading cause of lost-workday injuries and workers’ compensation costs.  Many operations in a workplace have potential for causing injury or illness, each in perhaps a different way.  WMSDs account for 34 percent of all lost-workday injuries and illnesses, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics. Carpal tunnel syndrome, one form of WMSD, leads on average to more days away from work than any other workplace injury.  Carpal tunnel syndrome cases involve more than 25 days away from work, compared to 17 for fractures and 20 for amputations. The amount of physical stress a job produces is often determined by the:

If your job activities require repetitive movements for prolonged periods of time, then an ergonomic approach to performing the job tasks will help avoid unnecessary injury. Many of the principals outlined in this newsletter can be used on job sites like your physical plant for carpenters, painters, mechanics, etc. Use them in your home, too. You may help yourself or a loved one avoid a painful injury!


Your workstation should be designed to keep the body in what is called the neutral posture:

Working surfaces and seats should be designed to eliminate the need to work with a bent spine.

Ergonomic problems are especially likely at workstations where you have to:


Sit with your head, neck, and back upright.  Adjust the chair back and utilize lower back support. Sit with both feet firmly on the floor (or a footrest) in front of you.

Awkward posture, poorly positioned equipment and furniture, and typing or sitting in the same position for hours can add to wear and tear on your body.


Many jobs can be performed with less effort when you are standing.  However, prolonged standing can create stresses on the legs and lower back.

The height of the work surface should usually be 2-6 inches below the level of your elbow when the arm is hanging relaxed.  Padded anti-fatigue mats should be supplied for jobs requiring standing for a long time on hard, unyielding surfaces such as concrete.  Elevating one foot while standing can help reduce low-back stress, and adjustable footrests are available.


Lighting must be appropriate to the job. The amount of light needed will depend on the job, your age and eyesight, and other factors.

Adjust the lighting to eliminate glare and harsh reflections, keep the monitor screen at a right angle to outside windows, adjust contrast and brightness, use an anti-glare screen if necessary, and keep your screen clean.

Since most modern ceilings are the suspended type, light fixtures are "drop in" and a fixture located in the center position can usually be moved one position in any direction (for a total of eight ceiling tiles) to help remove glare.


Your monitor and document holder should be slightly below eye level, 14-20 inches from your eyes, and arranged in a position to reduce glare from windows and lights.

Adjusting the divisions of bifocals and trifocals can help when positioning your monitor and document holders.

Excessive light can create eye fatigue, so avoid direct or reflected light sources in your field of vision. The angle from your line of sight to the light source should be greater than 30 degrees.

Arrange your material and your screen so that you don't have to swing your head and eyes back and forth from the material to the screen. This action can make your muscles become stiff and sore, and cause eyestrain and headaches.

Keep your forearms, hands, and wrists straight and relaxed.  When you work with straight wrists and fingers, your nerves, muscles, and tendons stay relaxed and comfortable.  With this posture they are less likely to develop the strains and pains associated with keystroking and will prevent the possibility of damage to the nerves.

Your posture at the keyboard affects the position of your neck and head, wrists, and hands.  An adjustable chair will allow you to position yourself at a proper angle and distance from the screen.  (Other aspects are outlined under "Posture" above.)

Optometrists recommend an annual eye examination if your job requires prolonged use of a VDT.


Practicing good ergonomics does not necessarily mean a large cash outlay.  Here are some examples of no-cost or low-cost ergonomic devices.


Many new inexpensive chairs are ergonomically correct and can be mechanically adjusted to fit each user.  Using rolled-up towels or pillows can make excellent back supports.

The seat and backrest of the chair should support a comfortable posture permitting occasional variations in the sitting position.  Chair height and backrest angle should be easily adjustable.

 The chair height is correct when the entire sole of the foot can rest on the floor or footrest, and the back of the knee is slightly higher than the seat of the chair.  This allows the blood to circulate freely in the legs and feet.


Foot Rests:

A footrest may be necessary for short individuals. You can use telephone books or empty boxes as foot rests, or inexpensive models may be purchased.  Keep your feet flat and pointed toward your workstation.

Copystands or Document Holders:

These should be at the same height as your monitor screen, to keep you from straining your neck or head.  Inexpensive models are available, or you may choose to make your own from a cut-up cardboard box.

Telephone Headsets:

The use of a telephone while doing prolonged keystroking can cause neck strain if ergonomic factors are not considered.  Try a telephone headset to keep your head upright and your body straight.

Monitor Stands:

Use one or more large telephone books or empty boxes to raise your monitor to eye level, or buy a commercial model.

Hold your head at a slight downward tilt to avoid straining muscles in your neck and shoulders.

Stands that swivel horizontally, and tilt or elevate vertically, enable the operator to select the optimum viewing angle.

Arm Rests and Wrist Rests:

When the operator's hands are resting on the keyboard, the upper arm and forearm should form a right angle.  The hands should be in a reasonably straight line with the forearm.  Long or unusually high reaches should be avoided.

Arm rests or wrist rests would permit periodic support as needed.  Something as simple as a rolled-up towel can act as a wrist rest.

Glare Screens:

There are many inexpensive models available. You may not need to purchase a glare screen, but only adjust your monitor to face away from a direct light source.  Rest your eyes periodically (every 20-30 minutes) to help lessen the strain of prolonged keystroking sessions.


Practicing good ergonomics also means taking frequent exercise breaks to avoid eyestrain, back and neck strain, and hand trauma caused by repetitive motions.  Develop a schedule that allows you to perform preventive exercises that can be done at your desk or workstation.  Vary your routine.


To keep your eyes from drying out and feeling itchy, try to blink rapidly every once in a while.

Close your eyes and cover both eyes with the palms of your hands.  Take a 2-3 minute break with your eyes closed.

Refocus your eyes; look at an object that is located far from you across the street or room.  Take a two-minute break.

Sit with shoulders down and relaxed.  Gently let head fall forward as far as you can.  Hold for 5-10 seconds. Gently raise head and repeat up to 5 times.

In seated or standing position, let arms relax at your sides.  Then raise your shoulders and rotate them up and back in a circular motion.  Repeat up to 5 times, then change direction.

In standing position, extend your arms straight out at sides.  Move arms in a circular motion, with the elbows locked.  Repeat 5-10 times in each direction.

With your hands in front of you and your elbows at a comfortable angle, gently rotate your wrists.  Repeat 5 times in each direction.

Grasp the fingers of one hand and bend back the wrist. Hold for 5 seconds, then switch hands.

Gently grasp the thumb of one hand and pull out and down until you feel the stretch.  Hold for 5-20 seconds.  Repeat 3-5 times with each thumb.

With your hands in front of you, first make a fist and hold for 5 seconds.  Then spread out the fingers as far apart as you can.  Hold for 5 seconds.  Repeat up to 5 times for each hand.

Gently massage the palm and back of each hand, using a circular motion.  This especially helps the muscle at the base of the thumb.

If you feel you have an ergonomics problem at your workstation, contact your supervisor.