Working with computers

This guidance may help employers eliminate or reduce and control risks to employees from working with computers.

Minimising negative outcomes

Good design of the computer and accompanying devices, the work environment, furniture and work practices will help minimise negative outcomes from computer use. This guidance discusses health and safety issues relating to computer use and may help employers when assessing and controlling risks from computers.

Adjustable furniture

To help control risks from computers, employers should provide adjustable furniture, which could include sit-to-stand workstations and ergonomic chairs, and provide training on the correct way to set up a desk. Employers may also consider ergonomic assessments for new employees and employees experiencing issues.

Computer monitors

Employers should provide computer monitors that are fully adjustable and should train employees to set-up and adjust their monitors, including how to adjust monitor height so the top of the monitor is at eye level or lower.

Employees should know how to alter their computer screen configuration, for example, how to alter screen resolution, how to adjust font size and how to prevent glare.

Employers should encourage employees to take regular breaks from working at the computer monitor. Employers should also review work deadlines to make sure they are achievable without excessive screen use.

Using two or more computer monitors

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 is important the user has a comfortable supported posture.

The following guidelines may help when setting up multiple monitors.

Monitor stands

Screens may need to be raised above desk height to reduce postural strain to the user's neck muscles. The top of the screen should generally be level with the user's horizontal eye level and at a distance of approximately one full arm length when the operator is sitting in their usual position for keying. A variety of stands are available to raise screens above desk height. Fixed-height stands tend to be suitable for single-user workstations where the height of the monitor suits the individual’s needs and the employee performs varied tasks, including keying, throughout the day. Adjustable-height and movable stands can be used to meet the needs of different users or to provide space for other tasks an individual may perform.

Document holders

Reading source documents resting on the surface of the desk for prolonged periods may cause neck and shoulder strains through the adoption of poor posture. Document holders are designed to hold reference material so it can be positioned according to the user's visual needs.

Upright movable document holders can be positioned next to the screen at the same height and visual distance from the user as the screen. A-frame or flat document holders can be positioned between the screen and keyboard to support multiple or bulky papers. A-frames need sufficient adjustment to raise, lower and angle documents to accommodate different screen heights.

Eye strain

Reading without adequate light or reading small print over long periods of time can sometimes cause eye strain. It is generally believed that visual fatigue does not contribute to the long-term deterioration of vision. However, eye strain can cause eye irritation, watering and reddening of the eyelids or blurred vision. Some computer operators may suffer headaches associated with eye strain, particularly if the head and neck muscles are held in a static position. However, these complaints are also described by people performing other close visual tasks. Looking away from the computer to a far spot, walking away from the screen and giving the eyes some exercise, such as blinking, can decrease the effects of long periods of concentrating on a screen. A dry, air-conditioned environment can contribute to eye discomfort.

People with particular eyesight problems may be more likely to suffer eye strain from using screens than those who do not have visual problems or have properly corrected vision. Current research does not indicate evidence of screen use causing cataracts or other permanent eye problems.

Comcare's guide, Eye health in the workplace, provides further information and guidance about managing eye health.

Eyesight testing

The purpose of eye tests for computer users is to identify and correct pre-existing visual defects that may cause discomfort because of the visual concentration needed for many screen-based tasks. Some organisations have an agreement for vision testing for all computer users and provide a subsidy for prescription glasses.

Prescription glasses and computers

Many middle-aged employees suffer visual difficulty with close work because of a condition known as presbyopia, and require prescription glasses for correction. Bifocals are designed to correct vision when looking down through the lower portion of the lens for close work. This may be suitable for reading a document, however, when reading information on a screen, computer users are generally looking horizontally over the section of the lens designed to correct their vision. Many users lean forward and tilt their chins up to look through the lower part of the lens. This unnatural posture is unsatisfactory and can result in neck discomfort.

In these circumstances, employees may benefit from prescription glasses with full corrective or multifocal lenses. Any working documents should be located between the screen and keyboard or alongside the screen to ensure the same focal distances for both. This reduces the likelihood of the operator adopting unnatural neck postures. Computer users concerned about their vision or prescription glasses should seek advice from their medical specialist.

Notebook and laptop computers and tablets

Portable computers such as notebooks, laptops and tablets are designed for short-term or mobile use. The portable nature of these computers results in them being used in a wide variety of situations and settings where there is limited capacity to adjust the desk. This can result in the work height being unsuitable. Lack of adjustability of the screen and keyboard can result in the user's arms being held too high or the neck bent to view the screen. Discomfort may result if this position is adopted frequently or for long periods. Reflections can be a problem if the screen is tilted upwards to reduce the need to bend the neck to view the screen.

The negative effects of working on a portable computer may be prevented by:

  • docking the portable computer at an adjustable workstation
  • connecting into existing computing equipment, such as a screen, keyboard and mouse
  • transferring information from the portable computer to a desktop computer for more extensive periods of work
  • being aware of the importance of posture when using the portable computer and frequently rotating between keying and other activities
  • learning to touch-type to avoid periods of time looking down at the keys, which can contribute to neck discomfort

Carrying portable computers may also contribute to back and neck problems.

Laptop users should be advised against the long-term use of the computer on their lap because of possible thermal effects.

Computer docking stations

Docking stations enable the use of portable computers in a variety of locations. The advantage of docking stations is the capacity to easily connect the portable computer to other devices, such as a screen and conventional-size keyboard. This can improve the posture, actions and overall comfort of the user.

Keyboards and the mouse

Provide employees with the appropriate keyboard, mouse and instructions to carry out their work safely. Consider installing software that tracks keyboard and mouse use to prompt users to take a break.

Guidelines for computer users

There are guidelines and policies aimed at reducing musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), and improving the content of work and the work environment. Some of these are incorporated in legislation regarding manual handling. Others are developed by employer and employee associations for specific types of work, for example, call centres. Several Australian Standards refer to the design of furniture, equipment and environments for office work.

Working with computers checklist

    • lighting
    • workstation design
    • keyboards
    • mouse
    • desks
    • chairs

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

                  Software programs for OHS in the office

                  There are a number of software products on the market aiming to improve safety in the office. For example, there are screen savers which prompt rest breaks or promote good working postures or exercises, programs for assessing or improving workstations and various checklists and user surveys for assessing occupational health and safety (OHS) in the office. A poorly designed program may interrupt work and raise the user's annoyance levels. It is important to trial software in your own organisation before buying to ensure it will meet your need.

                  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 any 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.