Desks, workstations and workbenches

This guidance may help employers eliminate or reduce and control risks to employees sitting at desks.

General design considerations

Employees can spend hours every day at their desk, workstation or workbench so it's important to choose the right equipment for the task. Choosing desks, workstations and workbenches requires planning and research. The main factors to consider are:

  • tasks to be performed
  • equipment and resources to be accommodated
  • whether the desk can be adjusted to meet the different needs and sizes of users

For detailed information on office desks and workstations, refer to Australian/New Zealand Standard AS/NZS 4442:2018 Office desks, office workstations and tables intended to be used as office desks - Mechanical, dimensional and general requirements and test methods.

Types of desks

Freestanding height-adjustable desks

Freestanding height-adjustable desks enable the user to raise and lower the desk surface to position work at the most comfortable height. This type of desk is suitable in multi-user situations where different staff members use the same desk or in multi-task situations where the user performs a range of different tasks at the same desk.

The length and depth of the desk depends on its use. For example, a computer screen needs to be at least an arm’s length from the user when sitting in a keying position. The depth of the desk will need to take into account the distance of the screen from the user. Where a freestanding desk is against a wall, it may have to be moved away from the wall to allow the screen to be placed at the rear of the desk to achieve a suitable distance from the user.

Freestanding fixed-height desks

Freestanding fixed-height desks provide limited flexibility for the user, and the user and task requirements rely on chair adjustments. In some situations a tradesperson can permanently raise or lower the desk, however this renders the desk unsuitable for use by people of different physical dimensions.

Sit-to-stand desks

Research shows that sitting less and moving more has numerous benefits and can help reduce health problems such as musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some cancers. Adjustable sit-to-stand workstations can help employees sit less and move more. They provide employees with an option to change between sitting and standing when working at their desk.

Generally, there are two main categories of sit-to-stand workstation, the full desk and the table top.

  • The full-desk style allows the user to raise or lower the whole workstation to suit their sitting and standing positions.
  • The table-top style of workstation is a platform which sits on top of a standard desktop. The user raises and lowers the platform to move from a seated to standing position.

Full-desk sit-to-stand workstations:

  • are suitable for all desk tasks
  • can be relocated
  • support multiple screens
  • provide close and easy access to task-related items such as paperwork, telephone and stationery
  • can be adjusted to employees' preferred sitting and standing postures
  • provide forearm support, if required, to reduce neck and shoulder strain
  • should have electric height adjustment. Avoid manual wind-up models
  • should suit the standing requirements of both tall and short employees
    • Australian/ New Zealand Standard AS/NZS442:2018 recommends the primary worktop of a sit-to-stand workstation have a height adjustment range of 620mm to 1200mm above the floor

Table-top sit-to-stand workstations:

  • usually sit on a desk and provide a platform for computer equipment such as the monitor, keyboard and mouse
  • are usually less expensive than a full-desk workstation
  • are suitable for most desks
  • have models which use a desk mount or leg attachment and the mount may require space behind the desk
  • can be moved from desk to desk, although they can be heavy and awkward to lift, creating a hazardous manual handling risk
  • might only be large enough for one monitor, although some can support two monitors
  • might not provide enough space for easy mouse and keyboard use
  • might not suit taller employees because some models lift the monitor away from the user as the platform rises or the platform does not rise high enough
  • can be awkward and difficult to adjust
  • work best with wireless devices because cords can become trapped in the lifting mechanism
  • can become unstable if users rest their forearms on the platform

As an employer you should instruct employees how to use a sit-to-stand workstation properly. Provide instructions in using the workstation safely and adjusting the workstation to suit individual requirements.

Split desks and keyboard platforms

Some desks for computing work have an adjustable section to hold a keyboard. These designs limit the range of tasks at these desks. If used, the selection of a split desk should match the task requirements. Adjustment mechanisms in the leg space under the desk may be hazardous to the user’s knees. A drop-down keyboard shelf does not provide adequate space for using a mouse. The shelf forces the operator to raise the arm up from the side to use the mouse. Avoid keyboard platforms that slide out from under the desk. They increase the reach distance to other equipment on the desk and generally provide inadequate space to use a mouse.

Corner workstations

Corner workstations usually have a desk designed to extend along two sides of the partitioning so it occupies the corner. The corner section usually has a bridging section that is at 45 degrees to the two sides, also known as a biscuit. In some cases, the bridging section connects the two sides with a curve. The curve can accommodate larger computers and screens, which can be placed in the corner section to take advantage of the increased depth created by the angle.

Corner workstations can be an efficient use of space and often have built-in cable housing. Take care choosing a workstation that does not impose limitations on adjustability or the ability to change the layout if user needs change.

Standing-height benches

Typical tasks that require a standing-height bench include sorting mail, collating documents and binding and receiving incoming goods. Drafting workstations may be required for tasks that involve drawing or preparing artwork. In some cases, employees who have limited capacity to sit for prolonged period use standing-height benches or drafting workstations.

Ideally, standing-height benches should be adjustable to accommodate the height differences of employees using the bench. In general, a standing-height bench needs to be between 850mm and 950mm from the floor, but the height will depend on the type of task performed. The tasks performed should determine the amount of space required on the bench top. Generally, the length ranges from 1.2m up to 3m or 4m. The depth generally ranges upwards from 600mm, depending on the tasks to be performed.

Seated work should be done at desks, not benches. Benches usually have limited or no space for the knees, causing a twisted posture. High chairs can be unstable and do not enable an employee to place their feet comfortably on the floor or a footrest. They are also harder for most people to get on and off. Some high desks provide a continuous foot platform to allow for foot support and movement at the workstation.

Illustration shows a standing-height bench.

Image: Correct standing-height bench.

Sloped work surfaces

Some desk designs incorporate a sloped surface section or have an angle or sloped board that enables adjustment of the angle of a work surface. The sloped section is usually on top of a desk and used to raise the height and angle of documents so the user’s neck is in a more upright posture while reading and writing for prolonged periods.

Positioning the document at a right angle to the line of vision can decrease eye strain. The angle board needs to be adjustable and large enough to support several documents.

Illustration shows a person seated at a desk working on an angle board.

Image: Angle boards need to be adjustable and large enough to support several documents.

Hot-desking

Hot-desking is an office system where different users share a workstation or work at a vacant workstation. To control the spread of infection, employers should avoid or minimise hot-desking, so far as reasonably practicable, particularly in pandemic-type situations. If it is not reasonably practicable to avoid or minimise hot-desking, employers should implement measures to minimise the risk of the spread of infection. It is important that furniture and equipment used for hot-desking is adjustable and meets the requirements of as many different users as possible.

Where it is not reasonably practicable to eliminate hot-desking, employers should:

  • minimise the sharing of workstations and equipment
  • arrange for workstations, keyboards, computer mice and other commonly used equipment to be wiped down and cleaned before and after use
  • provide instructions and suitable cleaning material for wiping down and cleaning the workstation, keyboards, mouse and other commonly used equipment between users
  • provide height-adjustable chairs to suit different statures
  • provide height-adjustable desks, monitors, stands/document holders and footrests
  • have computers and software which allow easy interchange of mouse and keyboards without disruption
  • test the adjustability of equipment, chairs and furniture before purchase
  • train and update employees regularly in the correct methods to adjust their workstation, chair and equipment
  • allow employees adequate time to properly adjust their workstation to suit their body and prepare for work
  • ensure employees place frequently used equipment such as the telephone handset or dialler within their reach zone
  • provide adequate supervision and time to ensure employees adjust their workstation to suit their body and tasks
  • have secure storage areas for personal items

General features of desk design

A good desk should have:

  • rounded corners with no sharp edges
  • good access for legs with no obstacles under the desk to cause discomfort and possible injury
  • a flat, smooth surface for ease of writing
  • a neutral colour with a non-reflective finish
  • adjustable settings to fit most users
    • AS/NZS 4442:2018 recommends a range of adjustment for seated tasks of at least 225mm, from 620mm to 845mm in height easy adjustability from the seated position

Tips and hints

When selecting desks and other workstation equipment and furniture, consider:

  • tasks performed
  • type of equipment and materials used
  • whether the desk or workstation can be adjusted
  • number of different users

Where possible, avoid split desk designs because split desks limit the options for placing equipment and can cause secondary hazards if the user's legs strike the adjustment mechanism.

The space under the desk should be free of obstacles to enable safe and comfortable location and movement of the user's legs.

Where possible, arrange trials of a variety of desks from suppliers. Trials allow for the selection of desks suitable for the variety of tasks performed at each workstation.

Consider modular workstations that permit flexibility in design and layout.

Your legal duties

The Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (OHS Act) requires employers to provide and maintain a working environment that is safe and without risks to health, including psychological health, so far as reasonably practicable. This responsibility includes providing and maintaining safe systems of work and an obligation to consult with employees and health and safety representatives (HSRs) on matters that directly affect or are likely to affect their health or safety.

Employees also have duties under the OHS Act to take reasonable care for their own health and safety, the health and safety of people in the workplace and to co-operate with their employer.

Find out more about office work and your legal obligations on the WorkSafe website page, The Risk Management Approach to Health and Safety. A link to the page appears in Related information.

Further information

Australian/New Zealand Standard

  • Australian/New Zealand Standard AS/NZS 4442:2018 Office desks, office workstations and tables intended to be used as office desks - Mechanical, dimensional and general requirements and test methods.