Unit 8: Ergonomics and the Computer Laboratory

What is Ergonomics?

Defined as the science of fitting a workplace to the user’s needs, ergonomics aims to increase efficiency and productivity and reduce discomfort.

Ergonomics is the process of designing or arranging workplaces, products and systems so that they fit the people who use them.

Ergonomics (or human factors) is the scientific discipline concerned with the understanding of the interactions among humans and other elements of a system, and the profession that applies theory, principles, data and methods to design in order to optimize human well-being and overall system performance.

Most people have heard of ergonomics and think it is something to do with seating or with the design of car controls and instruments – and it is… but it is so much more. Ergonomics applies to the design of anything that involves people’s workspaces, sports and leisure, health and safety.

Ergonomics (or ‘human factors’ as it is referred to in North America) is a branch of science that aims to learn about human abilities and limitations, and then apply this learning to improve people’s interaction with products, systems and environments.

Ergonomics aims to improve workspaces and environments to minimize the risk of injury or harm. So as technologies change, so too does the need to ensure that the tools we access for work, rest and play are designed for our body’s requirements.

Ergonomics and Health

Ergonomics is helpful in both the prevention of occupational diseases and the promotion of health. Studies have suggested that many of the occupational diseases are connected to the poor design of tools, machines, workplace and work environment.

To prevent cumulative/repetitive strain injuries, variety of health problems including visual fatigue, ergonomics play an important role to increase work efficiency and productivity.

Poor workplace layout and design are major factors contributing to workplace injuries as well as increasing the risk of sprain and strain injuries and occupational overuse injuries. It also makes it difficult to deal with emergency situations.

If poor workplace design means you have to work near noisy equipment or in areas where you may be exposed to hazardous substances, this can increase the risk of hearing loss and of chemical-related health problems.

Why is Ergonomics important?

Ergonomics aims to create safe, comfortable and productive workspaces by bringing human abilities and limitations into the design of a workspace, including the individual’s body size, strength, skill, speed, sensory abilities (vision, hearing), and even attitudes.

How does Ergonomics work?

To achieve best practice design, Ergonomists use the data and techniques of several disciplines:

• Anthropometry: Body sizes, shapes; populations and variations

• Biomechanics: Muscles, levers, forces, strength

• Environmental physics: Noise, light, heat, cold, radiation, vibration body systems: hearing, vision, sensations

• Applied psychology: Skill, learning, errors, differences

• Social psychology: Groups, communication, learning, behaviors.

Ergonomics Domains of Specialization

According to the International Ergonomics Association, there are three broad domains of ergonomics: physical, cognitive, and organizational.


Physical ergonomics is concerned with human anatomical, anthropometric, physiological and biomechanical characteristics as they relate to physical activity. This is the ergonomics domain we are most concerned within the workplace, and most of the content on this site is very much focused on workplace ergonomics.

Workplace Ergonomics

The science of fitting workplace conditions and job demands to the capabilities of the working population. Ergonomics is an approach or solution to deal with a number of problems—among them are work-related musculoskeletal disorders.

At its core, workplace ergonomics is really about building a better workplace. When jobs are designed to match the capabilities of people, it results in better work being produced and a better experience for the person doing it.

Through that lens, ergonomics creates value on several fronts. It’s good for your people and good for your business.

Benefits of Ergonomics

1. Lower costs

2. Higher productivity

3. Better product quality

4. Improved employee engagement

5. Better safety culture

The ergonomics improvement process systematically identifies ergonomic hazards and puts in place engineering and administrative control measures to quantifiably reduce risk factors.

Ergonomics Process Assess Risk

Conducting an ergonomic assessment is a foundational element of the ergonomics process. Your ergonomic improvement efforts will never get off the ground without being able to effectively assess jobs in your workplace for the musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) risk factors.

Plan Improvements

The core goal of the ergonomics process is to make changes to your workplace that reduce risk. Making changes at scale requires a significant planning effort that includes prioritizing jobs to be improved, identifying effective improvement ideas, and cost-justifying the improvement projects.

Measure Progress

Measurement is an important component of any successful continuous improvement process. High-performing ergonomics programs are constantly measured using both leading and lagging indicators.

Scale Solutions

By establishing a common set of tools to train your workforce, assess risk, plan improvements, measure progress, and design new work processes, you’ll be able to scale ergonomics best practices throughout your organization.


Cognitive ergonomics is concerned with mental processes, such as perception, memory, reasoning, and motor response, as they affect interactions among humans and other elements of a system.

Relevant topics

• Mental workload

• Decision-making

• Skilled performance

• Human-computer interaction

• Human reliability

• Work stress

• Training as these may relate to human-system design


Organizational ergonomics is concerned with the optimization of sociotechnical systems, including their organizational structures, policies, and processes. Relevant topics

• Communication

• Community ergonomics

• Crew resource management

• Cooperative work

• Work design

• New work paradigms

• Design of working times

• Virtual organizations

• Teamwork

• Telework

• Participatory design

• Quality management

Ergonomics Applications

The applications of ergonomics are everywhere and many books are written on the subject, so I won’t try to cover them all in specific detail here.

The definition of work is an “activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result.”

That sounds like just about everything we do, and when you consider that ergonomics is about designing the work environment to optimize human wellbeing and overall system performance, you begin to realize that ergonomics plays a major factor in our lives – at work, at home and all the places in between.


Here are some general guidelines for adjusting your workstation in order to achieve a neutral posture while working. Of course, no two bodies are identical and different styles, models, and sizes of furniture and accessories may be needed. The best results are achieved when the individual is involved in the selection and adjustment process.

How should you set up your workstation?

Comfort zones Every working surface is divided into three zones: primary, secondary and tertiary (or reference). Individuals should position items in the appropriate zones for the task in hand and frequency of use, i.e. the keyboard and mouse and/or pad and pen should be located in the primary zone (within the distance of the elbow to the hand); items that are used regularly but less frequently should be placed in the secondary zone (within arm’s reach) and items that are used infrequently should be located around the outside edges of the workstation in the tertiary zone (within stretching distance).

When changing tasks, you should move items to the appropriate zone(s) for the duration of the task, or move yourself to the appropriate part of the workstation.


Primary work zone (distance from elbow to hand)

Use this zone for the items you use all of the time, e.g. keyboard & mouse or writing pad.

• Secondary work zone (within arm’s reach)

Use this zone to position those items that you use frequently, but don’t need all the time.

• Tertiary/reference zone (outside arm’s reach)

Use this zone for your least-often used items.



Desired features for computer task chairs include:

• Pneumatic seat height adjustability

• 360-degree swivel

• Back height/lumbar support adjustability

• Seat depth adjustability (either by moving the back of the chair or by moving the seat pan).

• Tilt is not necessarily recommended, and, if a chair has a tilt, it should also be equipped with a tilt lock.

• Armrests are not recommended for computer use. If a chair is equipped with arms, it should be adjusted to its lowest point.

Users should be able to sit such that their feet are flat on the floor (or a footstool, if necessary), knees are approximately 90 degrees and the back of the chair is in use.


Users should be able to place their hands on the keyboard or mouse with their neck and shoulders relaxed, their upper arms at their sides, their elbows at or slightly larger than 90 degrees and wrists straight.

• If a keyboard or mouse is too high when placed on the desk surface, users can employ a height- and tilt-adjustable keyboard tray. Keyboard trays should be large enough to accommodate the keyboard and mouse on the same level. If a keyboard tray is not practical or desired, users may be able to raise the height of the chair and use a footstool.

• In order to keep wrists in a neutral posture, keyboard legs should be folded up and keyboard trays can be adjusted to a slightly negative angle (away from the user).


• Monitors should be placed at a distance such that the user can focus on the screen while still using the back of the chair and keep their arms parallel to their upper body. This may be anywhere between 18 and 30 inches.

• Monitor height should be adjusted such that the user’s eyes are level with the top of the screen. This may need to be adjusted with the use of corrective glasses, as multi-lens glasses can impact how a user holds their neck posture.

• Computer users who use two monitor screens must assess how both monitors are used: o If both monitors are used equally, the monitors should be placed together, directly in front of the user. o If one monitor is used primarily and another is used only occasionally, the primary monitor should be placed directly in front of the user with the secondary monitor immediately to the side. In either situation, both monitors should be adjusted to the same height.

Laptop Computers

Laptop computers and tablets do not have the adjustability of a desktop computer when adjusting keyboard, mouse and monitor. For long-term use of laptops, a docking station, port replicator or external keyboard and monitor are recommended.


• Telephone headsets: If your job requires you to frequently use the telephone and the computer at the same time, a telephone headset may be recommended.

  • Input devices: There are a number of alternatives to the standard mouse input device. Since there are many varied work types, workspaces and operator issues, there is no single alternative device that is recommended. Contact EHS with questions about specific input devices.

• “Ergonomic” or “Natural” keyboards: There are a variety of keyboard types available for use. However, research shows that standard keyboards allow most users to keep their arms and wrists in a neutral posture.

• Keyboard or mouse palm/wrist rests: Palm/wrist rests may be used to keep a user’s wrists in a neutral posture and prevent leaning wrists on the edge of a desk, creating contact stress.


Evaluating Your Work

• How much time is spent on the computer each day?

• What are your non-computer-related job tasks? Can these be scheduled throughout the day?

• Is your computer work mouse-intensive, keyboard-intensive or a combination?

• Does your work require you to work on the computer and the telephone at the same time?

Other Considerations

• Do you wear corrective lenses? Should you consider lenses specifically for computer use?

• Do you have poor posture habits, such as crossing legs, leaning to one side or the other, slouching, etc.?

• Do you participate in-home activities that might use similar motions or muscle groups as computer work (i.e., gardening, playing an instrument, home computer use, etc.)?

General Tips and Work Practices

Even the perfect posture is not perfect for 8 hours per day. Computers users should devote at least five minutes of every hour of computer use to a non-computer-related task.

• Stand up while on the phone to force a break from computer work and focus on a distant object

• Print to a remote printer to force yourself to stand up and move around

• Schedule non-computer-related tasks throughout the day

• Blink your eyes multiple times during computer breaks to avoid eye strain.

• Each time you sit, take the opportunity to “reset” your posture. Sit back in the chair, relax your neck and shoulders, move the chair in, etc.

Sit-Stand Workstations

Standing desks or sit-stand workstations are rapidly gaining in popularity. While research suggests that prolonged sedentary behavior has emerged as a risk factor for various negative health outcomes, there is little agreement on the best intervention strategies to reduce sedentary behavior.

Standing Desks vs. Sit-Stand

Desks Some workstations are designed for the user to stand exclusively and some are designed to vary posture between sitting and standing. Research suggests that variability is key and users benefit from the ability to change postures between sitting and standing.

Types of Sit-Stand Workstations

There is a wide range of sit-stand workstations commercially available, from freestanding electrically controlled to manual setups that can be placed on an existing desk surface. Each type has benefits and limitations. Departments and users should consider the following when evaluating products:

• Ease of use

• Cost

• Desk space footprint

• Distance to monitor

• Space for mouse or other input device

Alternative Strategies

There are several alternative strategies to reducing sedentary behavior, both at work and outside of work. All computer users should be encouraged to devote at least five minutes of every hour of computer use to a non-computer-related task. Work-related strategies can include:

• Standing while speaking on the telephone builds in a natural break throughout the day and avoids the temptation to pinch the telephone headset between your shoulder and chin

• Print to a remote printer to force yourself to stand and retrieve documents

• Schedule non-computer-related tasks throughout the day

• Set a timer that reminds you to stand up and move throughout the day.

Certain commercially available fitness trackers (Fitbit, Garmin, etc.) will remind you to move throughout the day

• Use these University Health Services Desk Stretch videos to increase movement throughout the day

Strategies outside of work can include:

• Join a walking group in the neighborhood or at the local shopping mall.

• Recruit a partner for support and encouragement.

• Get the whole family involved — enjoy an afternoon walk or bike ride with your kids. Play with your kids — tumble in the leaves, build a snowman, splash in a puddle, or dance to favorite music.

• Walk up and down the soccer or softball field sidelines while watching the kids play.

• Walk the dog frequently

• Clean the house or wash the car.

• Drive less: walk, bike or take public transportation

• Do stretches, exercises, or pedal a stationary bike while watching television.

• Mow the lawn with a push mower.

• Plant and care for a vegetable or flower garden.




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