Office workstation design

This guidance can help employers and employees set up workstations that eliminate or reduce and control risks to health and safety.

Core components

The core components of an office workstation include a desk, a chair and the equipment employees use to perform tasks. Other furniture can include reception desks, paper storage, collation benches and workbenches next to office equipment such as photocopiers and printers. Flexibility and adjustability are the key design issues in workstations. Individual employees can then control the set-up and organisation of their workstation to meet the changing demands and variety of tasks they perform.

The range of employees who may use a workstation, the tasks the employees perform and the type of equipment they use should direct workstation design.

Adjustability

Workstations need to be adjustable to accommodate the different sizes and statures of employees. Workstations also need to be versatile and large enough to accommodate the range of tasks and equipment in offices. The workstation should be easily adjustable and the adjustment mechanism should not create a risk from manual handling. Electric adjustment is the most appropriate.

Posture and movements

The shape and adjustability of a workstation influences the postures employees adopt while working. The location and type of equipment used at the workstation also influences the range of movements performed during work. The workstation is the means of placing employees in the best position to effectively perform their tasks and use their equipment in comfort.

Workstations in the office

Offices use a variety of workstations to meet the needs of different computer users. The range of computer users includes:

  • data entry or customer service users engaged in continuous input tasks such as keying numerical data
  • interactive users performing a variety of tasks and spending a considerable proportion of the day working with a computer
  • casual users using computers on an occasional basis or infrequently during the day

Workstations should also allow for non-computer tasks. Alternatively, separate workstations should be available for non-computer work.

As well as the type of computer use, the variety of employees required to use a workstation influences its design:

  • multi-user workstations need to be adjustable to meet the needs of different users
  • single-user workstations need to be adjusted initially to meet the dimensions and preferences of the individual. Even after this initial adjustment, the user's tasks or needs may change and require further workstation adjustments

Common workstations

Possibly the most common workstation in an office provides for both computing and general administrative duties. This workstation usually involves:

  • an adjustable chair
  • a desk
  • a footrest, if needed
  • desktop computing equipment, including a keyboard, a mouse, a hard disk drive and one or more screens
  • a document holder
  • a telephone
  • related furniture and equipment

Sit-to-stand workstations

Adjustable sit-to-stand workstations allow users to change between sitting and standing when working at the desk.

Sitting less and moving more can improve health and well-being and reduce the impact of a sedentary lifestyle and its effect on health, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancers.

Sit-to-stand workstations should allow employees to quickly and easily change between sitting and standing in postures suitable for work.

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

The full-desk style of sit-to-stand workstation allows the user to raise or lower the whole workstation to suit their sitting and standing positions.

The tabletop style workstation is a platform which sits on top of a standard desktop. The user raises and lowers the platform to move from seated to standing.

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.

Guide to setting up a workstation

Despite the availability and supply of adjustable workstation furniture and equipment, employees often do not adjust furniture and equipment well. The following guidance can help employers and employees set up workstations.

Try new positions

When setting up the position of workstation furniture and equipment it is important users try new positions to find the most comfortable arrangement. Give yourself a chance to get used to any changes, because it may take several hours or even days to work out the best position. It may take a few tries to get the best arrangement but is worth the effort – and if a change doesn't work, reset the equipment and try again.

Chairs

When adjusting a chair, refer to any instructions provided with the chair or have someone show you how to adjust it and use the controls. If there is no one available to help, work through these instructions with another person and observe each other's postures and body positions.

Also, try to avoid sitting for long periods. Some form of break from sitting every 20 to 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 relief.

Seat

Height

Adjust the chair height so your feet are comfortably flat on the floor, thighs are approximately horizontal and lower legs approximately vertical. Low-heeled shoes will improve leg comfort with the chair at this height.

Tilt

Set the seat tilt, if available, to horizontal or slightly forward to suit your comfort.

Illustration showing the most ergonomic seating position, feet should be comfortably flat on the floor, thighs approximately horizontal and lower legs approximately vertical.

Image: When seated your feet should be comfortably flat on the floor, thighs approximately horizontal and lower legs approximately vertical.

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 centimetres and try this position.

Repeat this adjustment and try each new position until you find the most comfortable fit. Make sure the backrest supports the curve of your lower back and is not too low.

Forward/backward position

Adjust the position of the backrest until it exerts a comfortable pressure on the lower back area while seated at the desk in the usual working posture.

The backrest position should not 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 different positions until achieving the best fit. A slight backward tilt is a preferred position because it reduces force on the lower back. However, some people prefer to sit upright. You can vary this angle to change posture from time to time.

Illustration showing backrest support.

Image: Make sure the backrest supports the curve of your lower back and is not too low. Adjust the position of the backrest until it exerts a comfortable pressure on the lower back area.

Armrests

Armrests are usually not recommended unless they are short, fit under the desk or are adjustable. However, if your chair has armrests make sure they do not prevent you from getting as close to the desk as you require or that they restrict your elbows while you work. If this is the case, either remove the armrests by unscrewing them or replace them with a smaller or adjustable option.

Illustration showing chair with adjustable armrest, that should prevent you from getting as close to the desk as you need and not restrict your elbows.

Image: Make sure armrests do not prevent you from getting as close to the desk as you need and do not restrict your elbows.

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.

Illustration shows most ergonomic position of the desk top to your seating position.

Image: Adjust the desk so the top surface is just below elbow 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.

Illustration shows key points of clearance to consider. If you do not have a height-adjustable desk you might have to cut the legs or raise the desk on blocks.

Image: Ensure the desk is the correct height. If you do not have a height-adjustable desk you might have to cut the legs or raise the desk on blocks.

If the desk is too high

Raise the chair by the measured difference and use a footrest. Set the footrest platform so it is the same as the measured difference. Alternatively, 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 any changes are secure and stable.

Illustration shows seat height adjustment and use of adjustable footrest to achieve a good seating position at a non-adjustable desk.

Image: If the desk is too high, measure the height difference between your desk and elbow. Raise the chair and footrest by the measured distance.

Clearance under the desk

General items, like computer hard disk drives, boxes of documents or files, rubbish bins and mobile drawers should not be stored under desks where they will decrease or interfere with the required leg space. Reducing leg space may force you to adopt a twisted or awkward posture of the spine.

Illustration shows a person seated at a desk ensuring she has required leg space under the desk and can sit comfortably in the leg-well space.

Image: Ensure you have the required leg space under your desk and can sit comfortably in the leg-well space.

Drawers

Keep the 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, equipment such as the keyboard and computer screen should be arranged on the desk so you can sit comfortably in the leg-well space.

General storage on the desk

In/out-trays

Place trays at the outer reach sector. The outer reach sector involves extended reach where bending and even rising from the chair gains extra distance to reach an item. In-trays should not be above shoulder level.

Illustration shows the outer reach sector, max reach sector and optimum reach sector when seated at the desk.

Image: The optimum, maximum and outer reach sectors of a desk.

Stationery

Various 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

Large or heavy references such as directories and manuals should either be stored within close reach or in a nearby position where you need to stand to access them. Do not handle these items at the limit of your reach capacity while sitting because this action can result in undue strain on the back, shoulder and arm muscles.

Keyboard

Touch typing

Employees who cannot touch-type and have to look at the keys are at increased risk of a musculoskeletal disorder (MSD). This is because the operator may bend their neck frequently or for a sustained period to see the keyboard or the document from which they are typing. When beginning to use computers, it is important to learn basic typing skills. Short but frequent training using tutorial software programs can develop typing skills.

Angle

Tilt the keyboard using the feet at the back to suit your level of comfort. The common and preferred setting is where the keyboard feet are lowered so the keyboard sits flat on the desk. This helps prevent awkward wrist postures.

Position on the desk

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

Employers should ensure employees who have to type in their work can touch-type and, where necessary, should provide resources and training to improve employees' touch-typing skills.

Illustration shows seat height adjustment and use of adjustable footrest to achieve a good seating position at a non-adjustable desk.

Image: Place the keyboard as close to the front edge of the desk as is comfortable.

Mouse

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. Have the mouse as close to the centre in front of you as possible.

If you frequently use the mouse in your work:

  • learn to use it with both hands so 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 so it is easy to slide
  • where possible, avoid holding the mouse when not in use

Computer screen

Put screens in position once you have established the chair and desk heights.

Height

The top of the screen should be 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 other elevating devices to raise the screen height on a temporary basis until finding a permanent solution.

illustration shows good ergonomic screen positioning in relation to eye level at desk.

Image: The top of the screen should be level with or slightly lower than your eyes when you are sitting upright.

Distance from the eye

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

Positioning the screen

Place the screen so it does not face windows, does not catch reflections from windows and does not have a window directly behind it causing glare.

Illustration shows how screen placement can alter light reflection angle.

Image: Computer screens placed to reduce reflections.

Using two or more computer screens

The use of two or more computer screens is becoming more common in offices, allowing users to run multiple applications and multi-task to improve productivity.

Setting up multiple monitors requires the same approach as when setting up a single screen and it important the user has a comfortable supported posture.

The following guidelines may help when setting up multiple monitors.

Different viewing frequency

If using one monitor more frequently than the other:

  • place the primary monitor straight ahead to avoid twisting the body or neck to one side to view the display
  • move the chair when using secondary monitors to avoid bending or twisting to see the displays
  • adjust the monitor height so the top of the monitor is at eye level or lower

Equal viewing frequency

If using multiple monitors with equal frequency:

  • arrange the monitors in a slightly concave shape
  • position the screens at equal viewing distance from the user
  • position the screens next to each other

Different computers

If using a combination of computers such as a desktop monitor and a laptop computer:

  • place the laptop on a docking station or stand so that the laptop display is at the same height as the desktop monitor
  • place the laptop and desktop monitors at an equal viewing distance, particularly if the user is wearing reading glasses

Vertically stacked screens

If using monitors that are stacked vertically:

  • position the most frequently used display slightly below eye level

Other considerations

Other considerations when setting up multiple screens include:

  • adjusting the font size or display on the screen to be the same on each screen
  • using a deeper desk to ensure:
    • there is adequate room at the workstation for the various monitors plus any other tasks such as writing
    • the monitors can be placed at a longer working distance to avoid having to turn the head and body to see the displays
  • positioning less-frequently viewed displays above eye level

Document holder

The position of the document holder depends on your need to view and reach the documents and the type of document holder used. 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 the document holder is directly in front of the user
  • or 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
illustration shows a variety of document holder positions. 1. screen slightly to one side so the document holder is directly in front of the user, 2. document holder slightly to one side and the screen slightly to the other side, and 3. A-frame-style bookrest that sits on top of the desk.

Image 1: Place the screen slightly to one side so the document holder is directly in front of the user.
Image 2: Place the document holder slightly to one side and the screen slightly to the other side.
Image 3: An A-frame-style bookrest that sits on top of the desk is the most practical document holder.

An A-frame-style bookrest that sits on top of the desk is the most practical document holder and can be set at different angles. Usually, the best place for a document holder is between the keyboard and the screen, supporting documents on an inclined angle.

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

Telephone

The telephone should be either within or at the limit of the optimum reach sector, depending on the amount of use. Placement of the telephone 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 this hand can comfortably operate the numeric and function buttons. When mostly receiving calls, it may be more comfortable to place the telephone on the non-dominant side.

To improve efficiency, learn and use the functions of your phone, such as redial and the storage of commonly used phone numbers. Also, use a headset when using the phone frequently or for prolonged periods.

Angled reading and writing surface

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

Illustration showing a person working seated at a desk on an angled board to improve neck comfort.

Image: An angled board can improve neck comfort when reading and handwriting.

Workstation checklist

The following checklist can help employers and employees set up workstations.

Setting up your workstation

Chair

 

Check that the:

          If you have not checked every box you should take action to address the issue.

          Desk/bench

                                If you have not checked every box you should take action to address the issue.

                                Computer

                                                    If you have not checked every box you should take action to address the issue.

                                                    Telephone

                                                            If you have not checked every box you should take action to address the issue.

                                                            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

                                                            • AS/NZS 442:2018 Office desks, office workstations and tables intended to be used as office desks - mechanical, dimensional and general requirements and test methods.