Physical factors in office work

This guidance describes physical injuries that can occur in office work and discusses physical factors employers should consider when matching jobs to employees' abilities.

Match work requirements with employee abilities

People come in all shapes and sizes and have a wide range of different needs, capacities and limitations. Good job and work environment design relies on matching the work and environment to people's needs, capacities and limitations. This guidance discusses some of the consequences of a mismatch between work requirements and employees' abilities. It may help employers design work to meet better the needs of people working in offices.

Manual handling in the office

Manual handling refers to any activity requiring a person to exert force to lift, push, pull, carry or otherwise hold or restrain something. Manual handling becomes hazardous manual handling when it involves:

  • repeated, sustained force
  • sustained awkward posture
  • repetitive movements
  • exposure to sustained vibration
  • handling people or animals
  • loads that are unstable, unbalanced or hard to hold

Examples of manual handling tasks commonly performed in offices include:

  • lifting and carrying boxes of photocopying paper
  • moving office furniture and equipment such as computers and printers
  • handling large files, books and legal documents
  • prolonged data entry
  • opening and closing filing cabinet drawers

Musculoskeletal disorders

Musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) is a collective term for a range of conditions with discomfort or pain in muscles, tendons and other soft tissues, with or without visible symptoms.

MSDs arise in whole or in part from hazardous manual handling and can occur suddenly, over a prolonged period or a combination of both. For example, body tissue weakened by cumulative wear and tear may be vulnerable to sudden damage from a strenuous task. MSDs are usually associated with tasks involving repetitive movement, sustained or unnatural postures or forceful movements. Past names for these conditions include occupational overuse syndrome or repetitive strain injuries.

MSDs can occur suddenly and may result from forceful exertion in a bent or twisted posture, for example, lifting a box of photocopying paper from the floor. However, many MSDs occur due to daily work involving stationary postures which result in muscle fatigue, for example, holding the telephone, and repetitive work such as keyboard and mouse tasks. Conditions that have this type of gradual onset are probably more common in office work than sudden injuries.

In office work, other factors that have been associated with MSDs include prolonged and intense keyboard or mouse use, high demands on vision, sustained mental effort and peak demands or set work rates.

Eliminate or minimise risk factors

The best way to prevent the development of any injury due to manual handling is to eliminate or minimise the risk. This involves designing jobs, tasks and the work environment, including equipment and furniture to eliminate or minimise, so far as reasonably practicable, the factors that contribute to the risk of injury. To achieve this, employers must identify and manage all the factors that can increase this risk.

The Occupational Health and Safety Regulations 2017 (OHS Regulations) set out the legal requirements for managing manual handling risks. WorkSafe's Compliance Code: Hazardous Manual Handling provides practical guidance for managing manual handling risks in office tasks that may pose risk of an MSD.

Use the hierarchy of control

The hierarchy of control can help employers eliminate or reduce risks of injuries in office work. The hierarchy of control is a step-by-step approach to eliminating or reducing risks. It ranks risk controls from the highest level of protection and reliability through to the lowest and least reliable protection. The WorkSafe website has more information about the hierarchy of control.

Improving physical job design

It is important that physical job design fits with how our bodies operate. Points to consider include the following:

  • Joints should be in relaxed and comfortable positions. This makes the work of muscles, ligaments and tendons around joints more efficient. Where extreme positions must be used, they should be held for as little time as possible and not repeated often.
  • Keep work as close as possible to the body to minimise stress on the body when reaching to perform a task.
  • Store commonly accessed items between hip and shoulder height where possible to avoid bending over and reaching up.
  • Perform repetitive tasks such as using a keyboard and mouse only for short periods at a time. These tasks are best combined with other tasks requiring different postures and movements. For example, collecting work at the printer, reviewing, photocopying and distributing documents.
  • Static or fixed postures should only be held for short periods of time and mixed with different tasks.
  • Job design should provide the opportunity for people to sit, stand or walk a short distance as a normal part of their duties.
  • Avoid exertion from the use of excessive force.
  • Exertion of force should be done in an upright posture, without twisting the spine and preferably using both hands equally.

Keyboard skills

Where the user does not have good typing skills, the risk of an MSD can increase. 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. This approach can equally apply to two-finger typists who may have developed a reasonable knowledge of the keyboard but cannot type without looking at the keys. A concentrated effort is necessary to help develop new work methods.

Task variety

It is important to include task variety in the design of work. Task variety is best done by mixing intensive keyboard use and other computer use with a variety of other work. It is important that the different tasks involve a change in posture and muscles used. For desk-based employees, sit-stand desks can help provide a different work posture through the day.

As the working day progresses it becomes more important to provide work with different mental demands, changes in posture and more frequent work breaks.

Breaks

Rest or work breaks can range from short pauses to defined breaks such as meal breaks. Answering the phone or collecting a document from the printer are short breaks that provide an opportunity for muscles to rest and recover from keyboard and mouse use and for muscles to move after being in fixed positions.

Where a variety of alternative tasks is not available, it is important to have more work breaks away from the task. The length and frequency of these breaks depends on the work, the person and other factors. Frequent short pauses are preferable to infrequent longer pauses.

Exercises during breaks can provide changes in posture and movement for muscles and joints during periods of intense work. Exercises may be useful where there are no alternative tasks available but should not replace other controls. Exercises should be gentle stretches which provide rest for frequently used muscles and movement for muscles and joints which have been stationary. The best exercise is usually to get up from a seated position and move around.

Work adjustment periods

During employee absences it is important work is not left to pile up awaiting the employee's return. Letting work accumulate can cause an overload that can increase the risk of an MSD or psychological harm and loss of job satisfaction.

A period of adjustment may be necessary where employees are new to keyboard use and other office-based tasks or are returning from an absence of several weeks. The adjustment period will depend on the individual, the equipment, the environment and the duration of computer-based work involved. Where there is highly repetitive work, such as keyboard and mouse use, consider an adjustment period involving reduced workloads or a greater variety of tasks than usual. Gradually reintroduce highly repetitive or demanding work.

Checklist for manual handling in the office

Have hazardous manual handling tasks been assessed and controlled as far as practicable, including:

              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.