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Ergonomics: How to set up your workstation

by , 05 August 2013
People don't pay all that much attention to the way their station at work is set up.

Take, for example, my colleague. A few months ago a piece from one of the wheels on her chair broke off. Since then, there's been an ever-so-slight tilt to her chair.

She's been complaining about back pain lately, and today we realised this tiny little problem could be the cause!

Read on to find out how to set up your workstation properly and reduce the risk of injury...


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How to set up your workstation

Despite the availability and supply of adjustable workstation furniture and equipment, employees usually don't use these very well. The following checklist is a step-by-step approach designed for employees to use when they're located at a new workstation or whenever their tasks change.

When setting up the position of this furniture and equipment it's important to try new positions to find the most comfortable arrangement for yourself. Give yourself a chance to get used to any changes, as it may take several hours or even days to determine the best position. Remember, it may take a few tries to get the best arrangement, but it is worth the effort – and if a change doesn't work, you can always reset it.

Adjusting your chair

When adjusting your chair please refer to any instructions provided with the chair or have someone how you how to adjust it and use the controls. If there's no one available to assist you, work through this checklist with someone else and observe each other's postures and body positions.

Also, try avoiding sitting for long periods of time. Some form of break from sitting every 20 – 30 minutes is helpful. Even getting up for 20 to 30 seconds to go to a printer or standing while talking on the telephone will provide some relief.

Adjusting the seat

Height: Adjust chair height so:

  • Feet are comfortably flat on the floor
  • Thighs are approximately horizontal
  • Lower legs approximately vertical

Low heeled shoes will improve comfort of the legs with the chair at this height.

Tilt (if available): Set to horizontal or slightly forward to suit your comfort.

Finding the correct back support

Height: Start by raising the backrest to its maximum height. Then sit in the chair and check the fit of the backrest to the curve of the lower back. If it's not comfortable, lower the height by several centimeters and try this position.

Repeat this adjustment and try each new position until you find the most comfortable fit. Ensure the backrest supports the curve of your lower back and isn't too low.

Forward/backward position: Adjust the position of the backrest until a comfortable pressure is exerted on the lower back area while seated in the usual working posture at the desk.

The backrest position shouldn't feel as though it pushes you out of the seat, or that you have to lean back too far to reach it. There should be a two-finger clearance between the front of the chair and the back of the knee. Try a number of different positions until you achieve the best fit. A slight backward tilt is a preferred position as you reduce the force on the lower back. But, you might prefer to sit upright.

You can vary this angle to provide changes in posture from time to time.

Adjusting your armrests

Armrests aren't usually recommended unless they're:

  • Short
  • Fit under the desk
  • Are adjustable

However, if your chair has armrests make sure that they don't prevent you from getting as close to the desk as you require, or impinge on your elbows while you're working. If this is the case, either remove them by unscrewing them, or replace them with a smaller or adjustable option.


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Adjusting your desk

If you have a height-adjustable desk
Having first adjusted your chair to suit your body size, adjust the desk so the top surface is just below elbow height. To determine your elbow height, relax your shoulders and bend your elbows to about 90 degrees and check the elbow height against the desk height.

If you don't have a height-adjustable desk
If the chair has been adjusted and the desk is higher or lower than the elbow, other forms of adjustment will be required. Start by measuring the height difference between the desk and your elbow.

If the desk is too high
Raise the chair by the measured difference and use a footrest. Set the footrest platform so that it is the same as the measured difference or lower the desk by cutting the legs down by the measured difference.

If the desk is too low
Raise the height of the desk by extending the leg length or sitting it on wooden blocks or something similar. Remember to ensure that any such changes are secure and stable.

Clearance under the desk

You shouldn't store general items, like

  • Computer hard disk drives
  • Boxes of documents or files
  • Rubbish bins and
  • Mobile drawers

Under desks where they will decrease or interfere with the space required for the legs. This may force you to adopt a twisted or awkward posture of the spine.


Place most commonly used items in the top desk drawer to improve access and reduce reaching and bending movements. Where drawers are fitted to the desk, arrange equipment such as the keyboard and computer screen on the desk so you can sit comfortably in the leg-well space.

General storage on the desk

Place trays at the outer reach sector. In-trays shouldn't be located above shoulder level.

A variety of containers are available for mixed stationery items. These should also be stored at the outer reach sector or in the top desk drawer.

Reference books and folders
You should store large or heavy references such as telephone directories and manuals within close reach or in a nearby position where you need to stand to access them. Handling of these items shouldn't be conducted at the limit of your reach capacity while sitting, as this can result in undue strain on the back, shoulder and arm muscles.

Keyboard angle
Tilt the keyboard using the feet at the back to suit your level of comfort. The common and preferred setting is where the feet are lowered so the keyboard sits flat on the desk. This assists in preventing awkward postures of the wrists.

Position on the desk
Place the keyboard as close to the front edge of the desk as is comfortable. Don't place documents between the keyboard and the front edge of the desk while using the keyboard as this increases the reach distance to the keyboard and may result in excessive bending of the neck to look at the documents. Ensure that there is room to put the keyboard to one side when it is not in use.

Place the mouse mat directly beside the end of the keyboard on your preferred side. Use the mouse in this position and always aim to keep the mouse on the mat during use.

If you frequently use the mouse in your work you may wish to:

  • Learn to use it with both hands so that you can swap between the right and left sides for improved comfort
  • Set the tracking speed of the mouse to a setting that suits you
  • Maintain your mouse to keep it in good working order (for example, keeping it clean inside)
  • Where possible, try and avoid holding on to the mouse when not in use

Computer screen
Position the screen once you've established the chair and desk heights.

Position the screen so that the top of the screen is level with, or slightly lower than, your eyes when you are sitting upright. If the screen does not have a raising device such as a monitor stand, you may be able to use telephones books to raise the screen height on a temporary basis.

Distance from the eye
First place the screen so that it's approximately an arm's length away from your usual seated position. Try this position and if necessary move it further away or closer as required.

Positioning the screen
Place the screen so that it doesn't face windows, catching reflections from the windows, or have a window directly behind it causing glare from the window.

Document holder
The position of the document holder depends on your need to view and reach the documents and the type of document holder you use. For continuous or frequent data entry where the source document is observed more than, or the same amount as, the screen:

Place the screen slightly to one side so that the document holder is directly in front of the user.

Place the document holder in a similar position to the screen where it is slightly to one side and you look evenly between the two. An A-frame style book rest that sits on top of the desk is the most practical and can be set at different angles. It is usually best to place it so that it supports documents on an inclined angle between the keyboard and the screen. 

A lever or swivel arm document holder suspends the document above the desk at eye level. Anchor it to the desk on either the left or right or the screen, according to your preference, and place it directly beside the screen.

Place the telephone either within or at the limit of the optimum reach sector, depending on the amount of use. The placement should enable the user to operate the telephone without the need to move their trunk to grasp the handset or to operate the numeric and function buttons. When making a lot of calls, it may be best to place the telephone on the same side as the dominant hand so that this hand can comfortably operate the numeric and function buttons. When mostly receiving calls, it may be more comfortable to place it on the non-dominant side. Learn and utilise the functions of your phone, such as redial and the storage of commonly used phone numbers, to improve the efficiency of its use. Also, where the phone is used very often or for prolonged periods, a headset should be used.

Angled reading and writing surface
An angled board can improve neck comfort where a job involves a lot of reading and handwriting. It should be placed immediately in front of the user on top of the desk.

Ergonomics makes a difference to your business in seven ways. Turn to chapter E07 of your Health and Safety Advisor to read all about them.


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