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Ergonomic Safety on (and around) the Desk

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While a desk or computer workstation might not seem like a place fraught with health risks, it's still important to be aware of the ergonomic hazards that may be lurking there.

OSHA, which has something to say on most things related to occupational safety, states that "employers are responsible for providing a safe and healthful workplace for their workplace for their workers." That includes desks and computer work areas. And the agency has much to offer in the way of guidance for that particular work environment.

According to OSHA, "A well-designed and appropriately-adjusted desk will provide adequate clearance for your legs, allow proper placement of computer components and accessories, and minimize awkward postures and exertions."

The agency goes on to offer the following advice on installation, setup, and configuration of workstations that are both comfortable and productive.

Desk or Work Surface Areas

The Potential Hazards

  • Limited space on the work surface may cause users to place components and devices in undesirable positions. This placement may lead to awkward postures when reaching for a pointer/mouse or looking at a monitor that is placed to the side.
  • Inadequate clearance or space under the work surface may result from poor design or excessive clutter. Regardless of the cause, it can result in discomfort and poor performance.

The Possible Solutions
•Work surface depth should allow you to:
•View the monitor at a distance of at least 20 inches (50 cm), and
•Position the monitor to achieve the appropriate viewing angle, which is generally directly in front of you.
•Using a corner rather than a straight run of desk may provide additional space and depth to accommodate large monitors or multiple items.
•The location of frequently-used devices (keyboard, phone, and mouse) should remain within the repetitive access (primary work zone)

The Potential Hazard: Edges
Some desks and computer equipment have hard, angled leading edges that come in contact with a user's arm or wrist. This can create contact stress, affecting nerves and blood vessels, possibly causing tingling and sore fingers.
Possible Solutions
To minimize contact stress,
•Pad table edges with inexpensive materials such as pipe insulation,
•Use a wrist rest, and
•Buy furniture with rounded desktop edges.
Areas Under the Desk or Work Surface

The Potential Hazards:
•Inadequate clearance or space under the work surface may result from poor design or excessive clutter. Regardless of the cause it can result in discomfort and performance inefficiencies, such as the following:
•Shoulder, back, and neck pain due to users sitting too far away from computer components, causing them to reach to perform computer tasks; and
•Generalized fatigue, circulation restrictions, and contact stress due to constriction of movement and inability to frequently change postures.

Possible Solutions
Provide, to the extent possible, adequate clearance space for users to frequently change working postures. This space should remain free of items such as files, CPUs, books, and storage.
Other tips on good working positions, what to look for when selecting workstation components, and guidance on maintaining a healthy workstation environment are available in OSHA's "Computer Workstations eTool" at https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/etools/computerworkstations/

Tagged in: OSHA
Mr. Griffith has a received his bachelors degree in Environmental Health from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. He is a Certified Industrial Hygienist and president of Workplace Safety & Health Company. He has over 35 years of industrial hygiene, safety, loss control and consulting experience. Chemical monitoring, noise measurement, program development and management, risk assessment and computer management of health and safety data are areas of particular strength. Mr. Griffith is a member of the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) at the local and national level. He is also active in the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE).

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