Working at a Computer All Day: Know Your Rights

Every employee in the U.S. has the right to a safe and hazard-free workplace. The General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) requires that the workplace be "free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to the employees." "Serious physical harm" means an impairment in which a part of the body is made functionally useless or is substantially reduced in efficiency. The impairment may be permanent or temporary, or chronic or acute. This article describes employee's rights as they relate to ergonomics.

What is Ergonomics?

Every year, approximately 1.8 million workers suffer on-the-job musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) and repetitive stress injuries (RSIs) such as carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, nerve damage, and debilitating shoulder and back pain. Many occur as a result of sitting in front of a computer all day and either not having a well-designed work station or not taking enough rest breaks.

Ergonomics involves arranging the workplace environment to fit the person and the person's work. When ergonomics is applied correctly, stress and many potential injuries and disorders associated with the overuse of muscles, bad posture, and repeated tasks are reduced. This is accomplished by the employer (usually in conjunction with the employee) designing tasks, work spaces, controls, displays, tools, lighting, and equipment to cause the least physical harm to their employees as they carry out their job tasks.

OSHA can Issue a Citation

OSHA has no specific standard relating to ergonomic conditions and injuries; regardless, the employer must take whatever actions are possible to eliminate these hazards. Failing to do so may result in OSHA officials inspecting the workplace and issuing a citation to the employer. For information on how to contact OSHA about your workplace, visit the Department of Labor's website.

California's Ergonomic Standard

Of the 26 state occupational safety programs, only California's program (Cal/OSHA) has a standard specifically addressing an ergonomic issue: repetitive motion injuries. An employer may be cited when at least two employees at the worksite who are performing identical tasks are diagnosed with repetitive motion injuries (RMI) by a licensed physician within 12 consecutive months. If an employer receives an RMI citation, Cal/OSHA will conduct a worksite evaluation, impose corrective measures, and require employee training. The Cal/OSHA Consultation Service (1-800-963-9424) gives assistance on workplace ergonomics and injury prevention.

Improve your Workstation Before You are Injured

It makes good sense to advocate for a safer computer station to prevent an injury in the first place. Talk with your employer about evaluating your workstation to make sure it measures up to OSHA's suggested ergonomic standards. See the OSHA evaluation checklist for a comprehensive computer workstation review.

Here are few basic guidelines:
  • Top of the monitor should be at or just below eye level;
  • Head and neck should be balanced and in-line with torso;
  • Shoulders should be relaxed;
  • Elbows should be close to the body and supported;
  • Lower back should be supported;
  • Wrists and hands should be in-line with forearms;
  • There should be adequate room for keyboard and mouse; and
  • Feet should be flat on the floor.
Make sure you take the breaks that your employer offers and/or that are required by law. Leave your computer workstation and walk for a few minutes at regular intervals, if possible. In California, employees have a right to at least a ten-minute break for each four-hour work period, or major fraction thereof. Check with your state labor department on the law relating to work breaks in your state.

If You Become Disabled

If good sense and the General Duty Clause do not persuade your employer to provide you a safe computer workstation, consider telling your employer that you want to avoid a disabling injury (for example, carpal tunnel syndrome or back pain) that could impact your ability to work. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects workers with disabilities from discrimination. If you were to become disabled, your employer would have to provide you certain job modifications or "accommodations" to enable you to work, such as an ergonomically well-designed workstation, more breaks, time off for doctor or chiropractor appointments, to name a few. Consult with an California employment law attorney, if you think that your employer is not complying with the law.

File a Workers' Compensation Claim

A workers' compensation claim will get your employer's attention. Your employer's insurer will have to pay for doctors' appointments, x-rays, pain medications, and compensate you for loss in pay if you are not able to work. Plus, you will be entitled to certain job modifications to enable you to work, as discussed above.