Is your computing desk well set up?

By Grant Jacobs 31/05/2011 8

Taking my lead from Steve Caplan’s computer-work related pain, I take a brief look at setting up your computer workstation properly.

When I was a Ph.D. student in England, for a time I suffered chronic pain around the right shoulder blade. After a little reading and some experimentation, I came to believe the cause was a poor set-up for my computer desk.

Having put the computer desk layout right I’ve rarely had this pain again, despite working most of the day on computers–and then some time in the evening too–for years.

There are plenty of websites around describing a good set-up for a computer workstation, like the one below from the Computer Workstation Ergonomics page at the website of the Safety & Health division of The University of Western Australia:

Source: Safety & Health, University of Western Autralia
Source: Safety & Health, University of Western Autralia

If you (or your students, staff, etc.) are going to be working at a desk for any real length of time, I think it’s well worth the effort to set it up properly.

When I look at (biology) students working away at their desks, I have to admit I worry that their computer set-up is less than ideal.[1] Most full-time computer workers (secretaries, programmers, computational biologists, etc.) will–I hope–have been offered appropriate desks, etc., but I still see a lot of ‘make do’ in university departments.

The basics are covered in the graphic and the accompanying article, but I’d like to draw to attention two factors I found particularly relevant for me, one of which isn’t mentioned there.

Firstly, a computer desk should be much lower than a writing desk. For example, one of my computer desk is a recycled writing desk with the short legs removed. Ideally you want a thin desktop, so to lessen height between your thighs and the desktop. (Old-style writing desks often have a thick decorative lip.)

My preference is that your legs barely slip under the desk, so that the keyboard only a little higher than your lap. Bear mind that your feet should be resting on the floor. Thus, the desk top should only be a little higher than your knees.

Secondly, the keyboard should be straight and centred properly. I know this may seem a little strange to be focusing on, but I am fairly confident that this was a key factor in my case. If the keyboard isn’t straight or centred properly, you’ll be sitting askew to the screen, twisted around. Do that all day long for weeks on end and it’s perhaps not surprised you’d wind up feeling sore.

A factor here is that for full-size keyboards–the ones that have numeric keypads on the right, the centre for typing is to the left of the centre of the keyboard unit as a whole. The centre for typing is the middle of the QWERTY key set: it should be the key for the letter ‘Y’.[2]

Give your desk set-up some thought some time. Is it as good as it could be?[3]


[1] But then I worry about every one else, just for something do… I just hate to see others suffer, I guess.

[2] Oh, great. Now this is going to sound like Sesame Street! ’This post is brought to you by the letter… ‘Y’.’

[3] There are lots and lots of other tips for computer workers, but I don’t want this to turn into a list. If this prompts a few readers into thinking about the their work set-ups, or that of their students or staff, that’s good.

Other articles on Code for life:

Expert Witness – new forensic science book

Post publication peer review — a new way of doing science?

Doggie ERVs

Homeopathy – practical remedies to address it?

Ancient books (or I’d rather be reading)

The roots of bioinformatics

8 Responses to “Is your computing desk well set up?”

  • Writing as someone who has had RSI / OOS (wrists, shoulders), I wonder how many workplaces, let alone universities, actually bother to get someone in to set up people’s workstations properly. While I was a student, I managed to get rather bad RSI; now that I’m working, I was rather pleasantly surprised to find that the company has a health professional come around all new staff in their first two weeks to get their desks set up right – and they pay for ergonomic equipment if asked, which at least for me makes quite a bit of difference.

  • I was rather pleasantly surprised to find that the company has a health professional come around all new staff in their first two weeks to get their desks set up right

    Perhaps it pays off for the company in the long run – ?

  • Watch that mouse! With the numeric keypad extending so far beyond the centre of the keyboard (“Y”), it’s almost impossible to manoeuvre the mouse on the desktop without reaching and dropping the right shoulder forwards. It was only after my physio and I diagnosed the situation, and I installed a short extension (complete with wrist pad) to the right hand side of my desk for the mouse to run on, that my shoulder could get fixed. Try it now: pick up your mouse, swing your elbow back to your waist, and observe that the mouse needs to hover on or just over the edge of the desk. No idea why custom computer desks don’t come with an extension as a standard accessory.

  • Johann,

    One of the reasons I also have keyboards without the numeric keypad is so that I can swop to not having to move my right hand so far over. (It’s not a desk space issue.)

    By the way, my shoulder injury was from using Unix machines that were keyboard-only.

  • I wonder if those ergonomic setups are evidence based. They seem like reasonable suggestions but perhaps using extendible desks that allows one to work standing, sitting or kneeling are better in the long run.

  • Paul,

    Fair point but while I couldn’t point you to specifics, try ‘ergonomics’ (or biomechanics) plus, say, ‘computer’, ‘workstation’ etc. in PubMed – I think you’ll find it’s an active area of study.

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