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What Is an Adjustable Computer Workstation?

An adjustable computer workstation is one which permits a user to adjust the height and orientation of the chair, keyboard and other input devices, and display monitors. Letting users control their workstations generally has been shown to help protect their physical health and even enhance their productivity. A key feature of an adjustable computer workstation is that it’s continually adjustable; fixing different components in certain locations because they’re “ideal” based on the user’s measurements forces the user to maintain a single position. Education is a critical requirement, though, because users will sometimes make adjustments they feel are comfortable in the short term, but which could contribute to long-term damage.

Many of the early computer workstations were one-piece data entry terminals whose keyboards and monitors were part of the same unit. They were often placed on desks or tabletops; they were sometimes screwed onto the furniture for security purposes. The only user-adjustable equipment was the chair, but its adjustability was often limited. Many data entry chairs were on casters and some were height-adjustable; other controls common to modern office chairs, though, weren’t available except on very costly chairs.

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Many of those who used these early data-entry terminals complained of a variety of ailments, from back pain and neck pain to eyestrain, headaches and pain in their wrists and forearms. Studies based on ergonomics — the study of designing jobs to fit people — showed that users were sometimes forced to sit in uncomfortable positions to operate the keyboards and see the monitors clearly. These positions placed unnecessary strain on their muscles, skeletal systems, and eyes.

This strain, if not relieved, could lead to damage over the long term. For example, excessive bending of the wrists while keyboarding places stress on the nerves running through a channel in the wrist called the carpal tunnel. Continued improper keyboarding can lead to a painful condition called carpal tunnel syndrome.

The studies found that the optimal position for a computer user is sitting straight up with feet flat on the ground, or elevated slightly on an adjustable footrest. The user’s knees should be bent at about a 90-degree angle, and the forearms should also be positioned at about 90 degrees to the upper arms when the hands are resting comfortably on the keyboard, without any significant bending at the wrist. The monitor should be at the same height as the user’s head or a little lower, so that it can be seen by looking straight ahead or slightly downward.

Once the problems associated with non-adjustable equipment became known, it was clear to many that the best solution would be to provide each user with an adjustable computer workstation. This would consist essentially of separate adjustable platforms for the monitor and keyboard and a completely adjustable chair. Education was also a desirable element of providing adjustable workstations, so that users and their employers would know what to strive for. For example, it was found that users should be able to make minor adjustments to their positions more or less continuously rather than hold a particular position all day long.

Some employers resisted incurring the costs associated with giving each user an adjustable computer workstation. Many people mocked the claims that non-adjustable workstations could cause long-term injury and derided the research supporting those claims. Some of this resistance was overcome in the US when a number of workers with carpal tunnel syndrome and some other repetitive stress injuries (RSIs) successfully filed workers’ compensation claims. Computer workstations and seats are sold separately in the modern marketplace, but when integrated they give users a high level of control over their own working conditions.

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