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How to Create an Injury-Free Workspace

Oh, my aching back! Avoid common office injuries like muscle strains and vision problems by setting up a workstation the right way. We’ve got all the tips to make redecorating a snap.
How to Create an Injury-Free Workspace

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Every morning I settle into my chair, sit up nice and straight, place my fingers piano-player-perfectly on the keyboard, and start working. By about 3:00 pm my graceful posture has deflated into a slight slouch; by 4:30 pm I’m lucky if my rear end hasn’t fallen off the seat cushion.

Mid-afternoon contortions are pretty common among today’s employees. In 2010, musculoskeletal disorders made up 29 percent of serious workplace injuries in the U.S., and there’s evidence that the number of employees twisted like pretzels is increasing.

It’s time for an intervention, and for good reason: Wacky positioning in a poorly organized workspace can contribute to injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome, muscle strains, and vision problems [1]. But slouch and strain no more. We’ve got all the tips for designing an ergonomic workspace — the fancy term for a work area that’s safe, comfortable, and good for our health. Read on for a how-to lesson in modern workplace safety.

Office Space — The Need-to-Know

Illustration by Elaine Liu


Rock climbing, windsurfing, and tackle football — now those sound dangerous. But sitting at a desk for even part of the day can be just as risky. Common office injuries include carpal tunnel syndrome (nerve damage in the wrist) and myofascial pain syndrome (chronic pain disorder) of the shoulder, often caused by incorrect typing and mousing techniques [2]. Muscle strains in the neck, back, and shoulders can happen when we’re hunched over a keyboard, say, when inputting numbers into an Excel sheet.

It’s not just muscles, either. Staring at a computer screen for too long can cause headaches and swollen, irritated eyes. If any of these symptoms sound familiar, there are thankfully some easy ways to avoid workplace health issues.

Ergonomicize — Your Action Plan

Some research suggests an ergonomic setup can alleviate symptoms of musculoskeletal disorders [3]. But before calling in Extreme Makeover: Office Edition, know that it’s still unclear whether ergonomic interventions can help carpal tunnel syndrome and other similar issues [1] [4]. In some cases, an ergonomic redesign may not be enough, and medical attention might also be necessary [2].

If muscle pain or vision problems are causing serious issues, it might be time to see a doctor. The steps below won’t reverse damage but can make for a spiffy, safer, Greatist-approved workspace.

  • Chair: There’s no need for a bejeweled royal throne, but the seat cushion should be comfortable and the chair should have armrests that allow elbows to rest at a 90-degree angle while typing. And one size does not fit all butts, so make sure it’s possible to adjust the height of the seat so arms are at the height of the desk, thighs are parallel to the floor, and feet rest flat on the floor. The backrest should be at a 90-degree angle to the desk (or farther forward depending on personal preference). Swiveling capabilities are also a plus so we don’t need to stretch and strain to reach the stapler in the corner of the desk. Or mix things up and try a sit-stand workstation, which some employees say reduces back and neck pain and helps keep them focused during the workday.
  • Desk: The desk space should be large enough to accommodate all the essentials — monitor, keyboard, mouse, notebook, water bottle, etc. For those who use a mouse instead of a track-pad, position the mouse and keyboard close together. When you look down, the “B” key should be right under your nose. And no fancy dance moves at the desk, either: Wrists should be in a neutral position, not extended up or down. It can also help to use a wrist rest, or a simple cushion that can help prevent contact stress from pressing wrists into the table edge.
  • Monitor: The computer screen should sit about an arm’s length away from you, and should face directly toward you (not angled to the right or left). To minimize glare, don’t wear shades, but align eyes with the top of the screen’s viewing area. Follow the 20/20/20 rule: For every 20 minutes spent staring at Pinterest (er, a Word Doc), take 20 seconds to look away from the computer at something at least 20 feet in the distance. Or, alternatively, try taking a gym break or lunch hour away from the computer to give eyes (and mind) some reprieve.
  • Mouse: Consider using a trackball or a touchpad to minimize the repetitive motions of moving a mouse. For standard mouse fans, choose a mouse that fits the shape of your hand but is still as flat as possible. Some people prefer to forgo a mouse pad, which can place the mouse at a higher angle and cause wrist strain. And this isn't a Frisbee game: Move the mouse from the elbow and not the wrist.

Does your office setup meet these requirements? Have you ever suffered one of these common office injuries? Tell us in the comments below.

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Works Cited +

  1. Ergonomic design and training for preventing work-related musculoskeletal disorders of the upper limb and neck in adults. Hoe, V.C., Urquhart, D.M., Kelsall, H.L., et al. Centre for Occupational and Environmental Health, University of Malaya, Pantai Valley, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2012; 8:CD008570.
  2. A medical-ergonomic program for symptomatic keyboard/mouse users. Bleecker, M.L., Celio, M.A., Barnes, S.K. Center for Occupational and Environmental Neurology, Baltimore, MD. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine 2011;53(5):562-8.
  3. Ergonomic Training Reduces Musculoskeletal Disorders Among Office-Workers: Results from the 6-Month Follow-Up. Mahmud, N., Kenny, D.T., Zein, R.M., et al. Program of Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Faculty of Management and Human Resource Development, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, Malaysia. The Malaysian Journal of Medical Sciences 2011;18(2):16-26.
  4. Ergonomic positioning or equipment for treating carpal tunnel syndrome. O’Connor, D., Page, M.J., Marshall, M.C., et al. School of Public Health & Preventive Medicine, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2012;1: CD009600.