Contact Center Ergonomics

TASA ID: 10539

This article was originally published in the October 2010 issue of the Contact Center Pipeline  http://contactcenterpipeline.com/downloadorder.aspx?dir=Members&file=HW201010_CCErgonomics

Health and safety issues are key components of any contact center management strategy, as the impact of just one lost-time illness or injury case can affect the bottom line by hundreds of thousands of dollars—costs that can affect the profitability of a contact center.

Physical Fatigue Is a Key Concern

However, there are effective means available to help reduce the physical stresses on employees and not only improve the physical comfort and well-being of employees while at work, but which may also serve to enhance employee productivity—if an employee is “comfortable,” then the employee is considered to be more apt to work versus taking unauthorized rest breaks from physical fatigue. Contrary to popular opinion, physical fatigue CAN result from sitting down in a contact center all day. Fatigue can also be psychological in its cause or nature, and can affect an employee’s wellness or productivity. However, this article focuses on the physical causes of workplace-induced worker fatigue.

Good Equipment Results in Better Productivity

My own research has shown that employees who spend a cumulative four hours or more per day performing computer-related tasks are significantly more likely to experience physical discomfort than those employees who spend less than four hours per day performing computer-related tasks. And in a contact center, the majority of employees will be in the higher-risk group. An internal IRS study from several years ago (Hecox, O. D.: Test Results on Ergonomic Chair at the Internal Revenue Service, 1988) found that comfortable IRS workers processed 8% more papers per hour than they did prior to receiving workplace interventions (ergonomic chairs coupled with training in their use) with the goal of allowing the employees to work more comfortably.

Good Postures Improve Comfort

To improve employees’ physical comfort, they must be able to achieve good working postures. Unfortunately, if a workstation arrangement is “fixed,” with few opportunities for adjustment, then it may be more difficult to achieve that “good” working posture. By the same token, if three or more people share the same workstation over the course of a 24-hour day, seven days per week, then there is a good chance that none of them are able to work comfortably.

In a contact center, to achieve optimal health, safety and productivity, workstations should accommodate 90% of the population; i.e., based on what we know about the dimensions of people’s bodies, the goal is for a desk to accommodate workers who range from a 6’ 2” male to a 5’ 1” female employee.

To accommodate this wide range of physical sizes of employees requires flexibility from the workstation equipment that is provided, and knowledge on the part of employees and supervisors regarding the proper use and arrangement of that equipment.

How to Achieve Good Posture

Employees should be seated with their feet firmly supported by the floor or a footrest. Failure to support the feet can cause pressure on the underside of the thighs, which may reduce blood circulation. The lack of foot support may also cause a person to sit on the edge of the chair, thus losing any benefit from the back rest of the chair. Finally, the person may tip forward, thus placing all the weight of the upper body on the vertebrae and discs of the lower spine, thus increasing the risk for lower back discomfort.

Once the feet have been supported, the chair should be adjusted so the knees are slightly below the hips (the chairs used should have a waterfall front to reduce pressure on the underside of the thighs) and the angle between the torso and thighs should be between about 90 and 110 degrees. This angle allows employees to recline into the backrest of the chair, reducing the amount of upper body weight that is concentrated on the lower spinal vertebrae and discs.

Employees should be able to work with relaxed shoulder postures and the keyboard and mouse pointing devices no more than 12 to 16 inches from the shoulders… not the front edge of the desk. Locating these items too far from the employee can result in physical stresses on the shoulders that can damage the tendons, ligaments and nerves, thus increasing the risk for rotator cuff damage. 

The elbows should be bent about 90 degrees… again, if the keyboard and mouse are too far away, the arms may be extended, thus increasing stresses on the shoulders… and reducing circulation to the arms, wrists and hands. In turn, this reduced circulation can increase the risk for damage to those structures, as reduced circulation results in reduced ability of the body to heal itself.

The chairs that are used should be fully adjustable. The seat pan should operate independently of the back rest, and there should be five legs/casters for stability. Chair casters for office chairs are usually most appropriate for carpeted floor surfaces, however, if the contact center employees work on tile or concrete floors, then it may be necessary to change the chair casters to a softer version, as the wrong caster on a chair can result in employee falls and injuries.

When operating the mouse the employee’s wrist should remain straight. Frequently, I see people who use a mouse input device “flicking” their wrists with the palm supported by either the desk or a pad. Resting the palm on the desk or a pad encourages this awkward flicking movement, and can potentially increase the risk for damage to the tendons and nerves that transverse the carpal (wrist) tunnel. The wrist should be kept straight when operating the mouse, often by using a full forearm motion.

When using the keyboard, the wrists should also remain straight. Thus instead of resting the palms on the desk, the employees should elevate their palms and “float” their hands over the keyboard, resting only during pauses in typing. Employees with wide shoulder structures may be more comfortable with an “ergonomic” or curved style keyboard that presents the keys at an angle away from the body versus the traditional keyboard which presents the keys parallel to the torso. 

Often employees place the computer keyboard and mouse directly on the desk surface. Unfortunately, this frequently leads them to reach forward and lean forward to access the items.  Over time this can cause the spine to deform and can lead to severe back pain and limited mobility. If an employee is able to lean back into the chair and have access to the keyboard and mouse without reaching (and be able to easily view the monitor), then this situation should not occur. This requires the keyboard and mouse to be placed on the front edge of the work surface; however, they often migrate away from the front desk edge and require those extended reaches.

The Monitor Can Present Additional Issues

The position of the computer monitor can affect employees’ necks. If the monitor is to the side, then employees must twist their bodies, thus damaging their spine. If the monitor is too high, then they tilt their heads back, thus damaging the vertebrae of the upper spine. If the monitor is too low, then they tilt their heads forward, thus increasing the risk for damage to the vertebrae.  People who wear bifocals or multifocal eyeglass lenses usually need their monitors placed directly on the desk surface to reduce awkward neck postures. For most other people, the top of the monitor screen should be just below the horizontal line of sight. As people normally gaze downward slightly, this positioning should allow good work postures. Additionally to reduce eyestrain, the monitor should be located to avoid glare from exterior windows or light sources. If the monitor is too far away, then employees often are seen leaning forward, trying to see the screen, often due to impaired vision or outdated prescription lenses. Employees should be able to lean back into the chair and easily view the monitor at the same time. Employees who use dual monitors must also take care to avoid awkward neck and body postures, and this issue of workplace design provides opportunities for further study.

Phone Use Can Contribute to the Risk for Injuries

Finally, it stands to reason that employees who use both the telephone and computer during contact center activities are also at risk for work-related musculoskeletal disorders… unless they use a telephone headset. The use of the headset allows employees to maintain an upright, neutral neck posture, so that the vertebrae and discs of the upper (cervical) spine are not stressed. Neurovascular disorders such as thoracic outlet syndrome can result if employees cradle a telephone receiver between their shoulder and ear; hence, it is critical for contact center employees to use a telephone headset. 

Flexibility and Adjustability of Workstation Equipment Is Critical

Much has been discussed about how a person should be positioned for optimal comfort and productivity, and the question may be raised, “How do we do this with several people using the same workstation?” The key to a contact center operation where multiple employees may use the same workstation is flexibility and adjustability… of the equipment. 

Chairs should be easy to adjust, and employees should receive training regarding how to adjust their chairs. Computer monitors should be on adjustable arms to accommodate both large and small employees, as well as those who must use bifocal or multifocal lenses in their eyeglasses. Keyboards and mouse input devices should be mounted on articulating keyboard/mouse trays so that these items may be brought to the employee, versus requiring the employee to make extended reaches, and if this is not possible, then the employees’ chairs and footrests should have the flexibility to allow employees to achieve optimal work postures.

Making the workstations used by contact center employees adjustable and flexible may not guarantee an employee will not have any work-related illness or injury cases, but it should help lessen that risk and allow employees to work more comfortably and productively.


This article discusses issues of general interest and does not give any specific legal or business advice pertaining to any specific circumstances.  Before acting upon any of its information, you should obtain appropriate advice from a lawyer or other qualified professional.


This article may not be duplicated, altered, distributed, saved, incorporated into another document or website, or otherwise modified without the permission of TASA. Contact marketing@tasanet.com for any questions.

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