From The Ergoweb® Learning Center

Is There An Industry Standard For Desk Height?

Peter Budnick, PhD, CPE, and Gene Kay, MS, CEA

Last week we published a summary of an internal corporate study that demonstrated considerable ROI for adjustable computer workstations. One of our astute subscribers, Jeremy Rickards, responded to the article with this comment:

… how do we ergonomists change the mindset of the office furniture industry who only make 29 in. fixed-height office desks and tables? I have taken a saw to the legs for some clients, but generally management are not cooperative!

This seems like a basic issue, from the user’s perspective, and basic from an ergonomics perspective, but oh so complicated from the “industry” perspective.

The question got us thinking: asking “what is the standard desk height” is like asking “what is the single standard waist size for a pair of pants.”

Because we are ergonomists and we know that one-size does not fit all, we would laugh at such a question about pants sizes, but somehow we accept the same type of absurd question when it comes to workstation design. We’re not criticizing the user who asked the question — he/she had a legitimate concern. Nor are we criticizing those who responded — they were very kind to share some thoughts on the issue.

Instead, we’re questioning the “industry,” which in this case is the office furniture industry … or is it the facilities management industry … or the contract furniture vendors that sell and install the workstations … or is it the ergonomics industry? Can we do a better job forming a succinct answer to such a question?

There are a lot of reasons for a “standard desk height,” the least of which, unfortunately, has anything to do with the health or performance of the person/people that will use the workstation. For example, establishing a standard one-size-fits-all height for computer workstation desk heights is a “good idea” from these perspectives:

  • It’s easier and cheaper to manufacture static workstations
  • It’s easier and cheaper, at least up front, to purchase static workstations
  • It might be easier to install static workstations
  • It just so happens that things like under-the-desk file cabinets will fit under a 29″ desk
  • It has the word “standard” tied to it, so it gives decision makers (an unfounded) feeling of security

Notice that not one of these reasons is user centered. Not one of them takes into account the person; no concern for their performance; no concern for their health; and, therefore, little concern for long-term organizational performance, either. Not one of these reasons has any foundation in ergonomics theory or application.

Ergonomics is, by definition, human-centered design. The only humans that are accommodated by “standard desk height” are those along the supply chain for static workstations and the purchasers who justify them within their organizations, and those few people who happen to be tall enough to fit that 29 inch “standard” height (typically users who are about 6 ft / 180 cm tall). All others will pay, one way or another, at some time or another, for this decision to ignore ergonomics. Those costs will be performance related; they may be health and safety related; and they often come in other significant forms, like continuously sending maintenance personnel to manually adjust work heights that don’t fit the users, or retrofitting workstations with adjustable keyboard and mouse trays, footrests and other band-aids applied to provide user adjustability.

Therefore, we are very comfortable responding to the question of “what is the industry standard for desk height” with the answer:

There is no valid standard for computer workstation desk height.

However, if you were a user or decision-maker trying to find an answer to the question, this probably wouldn’t be very satisfying. So, we might expand the response to something like:

There is no valid standard for computer workstation desk height. Instead, the appropriate work height is that which best fits the size and ability of the person or people while they perform their various work tasks.

Hmmm. Still not very satisfying. So, how about:

There is no valid standard for computer workstation desk height. Instead, the appropriate work height is that which best fits the size and ability of the person or people while they perform their work tasks. And, since a person’s tasks may change throughout the day, so therefore may the appropriate work height change. And if this is a shared workstation, each person will likely be different sized, and may perform different tasks, and will therefore need a flexible work surface height in order to perform their work effectively and remain healthy.

Hmmmmm. This is getting long and wordy, and while it’s technically correct, it still doesn’t provide any actionable guidance. Among us eggheaded ergonomists, this makes perfect sense! But to everyone else, it sounds like we’re evading the question — and we are, because we know it’s a multidimensional problem, dependent on multiple factors, and it’s very difficult to explain in a few sentences.

What we really need is a decision tree that asks the right questions, and based on responses, guides the questioner through to the best answer. Such a decision tree could take many forms, and we’d like to engage your input in helping us develop a response and a decision tree for the question of standard desk height.

One of the improvements we’re pursuing here at Ergoweb is to better engage you, our community members. You have a wealth of knowledge and experience, and rather than us always pushing information at you, we’d like to encourage and facilitate more collaboration. Ultimately, we’d like to take on questions like this one — desk height — as a community, building consensus and producing useful and actionable guidance documents that we can all use in our own practice, and which we can use to raise awareness and quality within the ergonomics industry, and therefore bringing more value to the clients and public we serve.

This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2011-08-10. It was last midified on January 17, 2019.