Physical - Work health & safety and workplace ergonomics (design and function)

Workplace Ergonomics

The human body is designed to do different activities using different postures like sitting or standing during the day. Sitting or standing for a long time can be uncomfortable for many people with injury or disability, and can have an impact on how they do their job.

It is important to minimise the risks or difficulties associated with prolonged postures at work. Where possible, the job and work environment should be designed to fit the worker.

It is the employer’s responsibility to ensure that all staff are provided with a safe working environment and have the tools and equipment they need to do their job. This applies to all employees, whether they have a disability or not.

People come in all shapes and sizes and have different capacities and abilities. Being able to change a workstation to cater for all peoples’ needs can help reduce the risk of injury as well as improve staff productivity.

The Office

An office workstation usually includes a desk or bench, a chair or stool and equipment to do either desk or computer based tasks. Adjustable equipment should be considered to allow people to adapt workstations for support and comfort while being able to productively complete their required tasks. If only one person uses a workstation, their workspace make up and design may be simpler than if it is a multi-user workspace.

There are some basic principles that can help when setting up a workstation which include:


  • adjust the seat height to allow the elbows to fall naturally onto the work surface to prevent reaching up or hunching over. Feet should be fully supported on the floor or on a footrest
  • adjust the seat base to allow the thighs to be approximately parallel or horizontal to the floor with no excess pressure from the chair on the underside of the thighs or back of the calves
  • adjust the backrest so the lumbar support is positioned in the small curve of the lower back, and so the back is approximately vertical
  • if using armrests, ensure adequate desk clearance to minimise the risk of leaning away from the chair to work
  • it is recommended to trial a range of office chairs for adjustability and comfort prior to purchase due to personal differences
  • If having to sit for prolonged periods, safe work practices should be adopted, including:
    • using an ergonomic work position
    • changing between sitting, standing and walking on a regular basis
    • placing regularly used items within close proximity to avoid overreaching or having to stand to access objects that are not within easy reach
    • doing stretches and work exercises on a regular basis
    • taking regular postural breaks, for example, after every 20-30 minutes of sitting, complete another task requiring walking or standing for 2-3 minutes


  • footrests can be fixed or adjustable in height and angle. They should support feet without restricting movement of the chair under the desk


  • most office-based desks are not adjustable, so it is important that chairs are adjustable so a workstation can be set-up properly
  • height adjustable desks can accommodate for multi-use or multi-user workstations or where someone needs to alter their posture regularly to manage symptoms
  • ensure a 45 degree bridging section is used if positioning a computer or tasks in corner-based workstations to minimise risk of twisting or reaching while working

Computers & accessories

  • monitors should be positioned directly in front of the user, at approximately one arm’s length from the seated position when keying
  • the user’s eyes should be level with the top third of the screen, being able to maintain a neutral position of the neck when viewing the whole screen
  • place screen at right angles to the windows to minimise glare and adjust screen controls or angle to minimise glare from overhead lights
  • keyboards should be positioned directly in front of the user so they can be operated with the upper arms by the sides of the body, forearms at 90 degree angle and wrists in a neutral position in line with arm
  • keyboards should sit flat on the desk, not angled, to maintain correct wrist position
  • mouse should be positioned as close to the keyboard as possible to minimise overreaching
  • hand should be relaxed when using the mouse and rested when the mouse is not in use
  • consider swapping mouse use between left and right hands to avoid overuse injuries
  • if using a mobile device like a notebook or laptop computer for long periods, a docking station at an adjustable workstation, or an external mouse and keyboard attachment with the screen raised can be helpful.

Document holders

  • if moving data from hard copy materials to the computer, place the hard copy directly between the keyboard and monitor on an angled surface
  • when doing desk-based work like calculating or reading, position the work on a large angle board to bring the work surface closer to the user, rather than the user bending forwards towards the work. This can help to reduce neck, back and eye strain.

Other desk based equipment

  • all other equipment used frequently at the workstation should be placed within easy reach, like the telephone and reference materials. If the phone is used regularly and computer input is needed at the same time, use of hands free, speaker phone or headset options are helpful.

Workplace adjustments and solutions

There are many different types of workstations and equipment that can be used at work. When choosing the most appropriate equipment and adjustments, consider:

  • all the tasks a person does at their workstation
  • the workspace or layout where the tasks are completed
  • any equipment, tools or materials that are used
  • an individual’s working posture when completing these tasks
  • if several different people need to use the same workstation
  • task performance requirements / expectations or work targets.

Workstations or work areas generally involve an employee working at some form of work surface and using a range of materials. A person may stand or sit to work. Simple guidelines can be used for task set-up, equipment storage, work techniques and routines than can help reduce the physical strain on the body. Some things to consider include:

  • store heavy and frequently used items at waist level, and infrequently used equipment below mid-thigh height or above shoulder height
  • set-up work tasks to avoid twisting the spine, bending forwards or reaching away from the body
  • use tools or mechanical equipment such as trolleys, jacks and hoists to reduce the physical force required to complete tasks
  • consider whether the tasks can be done from both a sitting and standing position to allow for postural change
  • consider whether the right equipment is available to undertake all tasks with minimal physical risk, such as stepladders for accessing higher placed items
  • consider postural change and whether the tasks of a job can be rotated or split between different employees
  • can stretch breaks be built into the work routine, especially before and after physically demanding tasks

Repetitive reaching or overreaching can also have adverse effects on the healthy body.

It is important in each job to minimise the risks or the difficulties associated with overreaching and twisting. Where possible, the job and work environment should be designed to fit the worker’s abilities. Workplace set-up should consider:

  • place frequently used objects and tools within easy reach and in mid-range of the body
  • if a person is sitting, it is recommended they stand (where possible) to reach objects outside of their comfortable area of reach
  • if a person is standing, a step stool or platform may be required to reach objects outside their comfortable area of reach
  • locate hand-operated controls, switches and levers between elbow and shoulder height of the worker
  • removing or eliminating a worker’s requirement to reach through job redesign
    • minimisation - decrease the frequency of reaching during the day
    • engineering - for example, use of raised work platforms or step stools
    • administration - modify work systems and practices, e.g. job rotation, good housekeeping, location of products in mid-range
    • training/supervision - ensuring workers operate equipment safely and adopt safe work practices

Other safe work practice recommendations include:

  • change between work tasks and work postures on a regular basis
  • do regular stretches and exercises at work

Related Links

Computer Workstation Ergonomics
Independent Living Centre Australia

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