AFT - American Federation of Teachers

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Office Employees


School secretaries know about multitasking and competing demands. Every day they perform a variety of functions--from office work to community relations. Unfortunately, several typical secretarial tasks pose ergonomic hazards that can lead to strains and sprains.

Computers. Computers are the primary source of ergonomic hazards. Computers are useful tools, but sometimes they are a mixed blessing in a school office. Not only do computers generally increase work demand, but for most school secretaries, computers are crammed into an already crowded workstation. School districts invest thousands of dollars in valuable computer hardware and software without giving any thought to where the computers will be placed in the office. As a result, computers often are placed on old, nonadjustable desks. Keyboards and monitors often are too high or too low. And many school secretaries must "make do" with old chairs that have little or no back support. Working on a computer also means hours of sitting in the same position.

Other ergonomically risky activities include:

1. extended phone work--cradling the phone between the shoulder and head;

2. collating materials while bending over a table;

3. using a calculator or typewriter; and

4. lifting boxes or reams of paper.

Carpal tunnel syndrome. When secretaries do not keep their wrists in a neutral position while keying, they have an increased risk for developing carpal tunnel syndrome--a painful inflammation of the tendons in the wrists that can lead to nerve damage in the fingers. This damage usually occurs gradually. An early symptom is numbness of the hands and fingers, especially in the morning. Symptoms get progressively worse, with significant pain and weakness in the hands and fingers. Untreated, carpal tunnel can lead to disability.

Chronic Lower Back Pain. Sedentary work puts office workers at risk for chronic lower back pain and back injury.

Shoulder, Arm and Neck Injuries. Secretaries can develop shoulder, arm and neck injuries cradling telephone receivers between their heads and shoulders, copying a document that is placed flat on a table and reaching into overhead storage bins for materials.


  • Take frequent breaks from computer work. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommends that computer users work no more than 45 minutes at a time on a computer before taking a 15 minute break that can be used for doing noncomputer work.
  • Stand up, stretch and walk around before beginning another sedentary office activity.
  • At least twice a day, take a few moments to do the hand and finger exercises.
  • If your computer workstation or desk is not adjustable, try putting the keyboard on your lap or raising your chair so that you are keying with your wrists in a neutral position. If your keyboard tray is adjustable, keep it in a low position.
  • Try to position your monitor with the top a few inches below a point level with the top of your head.
  • Keep your feet flat on the floor. If they dangle and don’t reach the floor, try using telephone books or other boxes as a foot rest.
  • Use accessories that will improve your comfort such as a document holder that will place hard copy at eye level, a lumbar pillow for back support or a footrest.
  • Adding machines, calculators and typewriters should be placed on adjustable work surfaces.
  • When collating materials, try to find a work surface that doesn't require you to bend over to do the job.

The AFT-PSRP Department can provide further information on ergonomics and preventive programs through the AFT-PSRP Occupational Safety and Health Program at 202-393-5674.