In the ideal world, no computer user would ever suffer pain or injury because of a poorly configured workstation. But sometimes the people who make decisions about how to build out office space are more interested in what looks good than what makes for a safe and productive work environment for people who use a PC for hours at a time.

Because a tech support team installs and maintains desktop systems, end users may call the help desk if they experience pain in the hands, wrists, shoulders, or neck. If an end user thinks the pain is because of the way the “computer is set up,” can the help desk help?

If you’re like me, and you’ve seen coworkers suffer needlessly because their workstation was poorly designed (or because no one told them how to sit in the chair properly), it’s time for action.

This week, I submit that the IT department should help, starting with making sure the right people in the organization understand the value of designing safe workstations and training end users in safe work habits. I’ll show you where you can find free online resources for evaluating the workstations in your shop.

The risks of bad design
The consequences of bad workstation design include pain and lower productivity for the end user and higher healthcare costs for the employer. So shouldn’t all companies take workstation design seriously? In the United States, OSHA does.

OSHA is the common name for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Labor. The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 gave all employees the right to file complaints about workplace safety or health hazards. To report a potential workplace hazard, U.S. employees can visit the How to File a Complaint with OSHA Web page.

To help companies avoid complaints being filed against them, OSHA provides free online programs designed to improve workplace safety.

Use the OSHA checklist to evaluate your shop
What can you do to minimize the risk that your end users will injure themselves because of a poorly designed computer workstation? Start by looking at how the existing computer workstations in your company are designed, and look for ways to improve them. To get the process started, check out OSHA’s Computer Workstations Checklist. Answering the 23 yes-or-no questions will help you identify hazards associated with performing tasks at a computer workstation.

That checklist is part of OSHA’s Computer Workstations eCAT, one of a number of the agency’s “electronic Compliance Assistance Tools.” The Computer Workstation eCAT provides suggestions for solving problems that many computer workstation users face every day. The tips and illustrations cover elements of the proper workstation, including chair, keyboard and mouse, monitor, lighting, and glare.

The eCATs are intended to help companies develop safety and health programs and do not constitute new OSHA requirements. You can review all of OSHA’s content related to ergonomics here.

When you begin inspecting computer workstations, what will you do to correct problems you uncover? Here are some of the common tasks that can make a big difference:

  • Adjust seat height. Some users can position themselves to type with straight wrists and hands simply by adjusting their chair up or down.
  • Install an adjustable keyboard tray. If existing work surfaces are simply too high, spend a few bucks on a keyboard tray that slides under the work surface and pulls out when the user needs it.
  • Raise or lower the monitor. You can buy fairly inexpensive plastic support trays that can raise a keyboard monitor to proper height. Those trays are safer to use than, say, putting the monitor on top of a stack of old telephone books.

Don’t forget the people factor
After you evaluate your company’s computer workstations and make as many improvements as possible, some end users will still end up in pain because they have bad work habits. They don’t sit with their feet and lower back supported. They insist on working with their keyboards at bad angles just because that’s how they’ve always done it.

If you have the time and the buy-in from management, you could schedule formal ergonomics training sessions for all end users. Some will scoff and make fun of the IT department teaching what they consider to be commonsense fluff. But the hope is that those people who honestly didn’t realize they had bad habits will be inspired to adopt healthier ways of working in front of the PC.

So how do you get the word out to your end users if you can’t get them into a classroom? The material and illustrations on the main OSHA site and illustrations may be a bit on the stodgy side for your end users.

For a little more entertaining take on computer workstation ergonomics and the ideal workstation setup, send your users a link to the CergoS Good Habits page, which was designed by the Oregon Public Education Network (OPEN) and is a part of the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division. That page features a link to a poster titled “How to be Comfortable at your Computer Workstation,” which is a good tool for presenting proper workstation posture.

Poor workstation design shouldn’t go uncorrected. If the IT department doesn’t take corporate ownership of computer workstation safety, who will?

How do your workstations stack up?

To comment on this Help Desk Advisor column or to share your advice for designing computer workstations, post a comment or write to Jeff.