By Brian Kraemer
From the February 2005 issue of Today’s Facility Manager
An ergonomically designed workstation can help turn a cramped work environment into a comfortable, productive space. Adjustable chairs and computer accessories have led the charge in the changing workplace. By adopting these advances, facility managers have been able to author new guidelines in workplace comfort.
What We Sit On
Ronda Crenshaw, director of the national ergonomic group for the New York, NY-based Humanscale, says, “The square footage of offices in this country is shrinking. With the footprint and space of the office environment getting smaller, it is crucial that the things that people are interfacing with on a daily basis are highly functional and adjustable. It is even more critical that everything be ergonomcially set up, because everyone is working in a tight space.”
One of the most important aspects of a comfortable workspace is the chair. This is were employees spend the majority of their time if they work in front of a computer.
Dan Morley, president/principal of the Elizabeth, NJ-based BFI, explains that the traditional approach to a seat is foam. “Foam goes in the seat cushion itself and can be molded in a variety of ways. If someone is going to be sitting for a long period of time, you don’t want to have a rectilinear front to the chair, because it puts pressure on the bottoms of the thighs. The solution is to have a waterfall edge molded into the foam-where the front of the seat cascades down the front of the chair. Otherwise pressure on the bottom of the thighs will cause fatigue.”
While a foam chair is a satisfactory choice, in terms of ergonomics, it typically only provides minimal levels of comfort. “At its most basic essence what a chair ought to do is support healthy posture, encourage movement, and require little, if any, effort for the person sitting in it to achieve those things,” says Crenshaw. A foam chair will tend to meet these basic requirements, but if comfort is a high priority, a foam chair is a thing of past.
“In the past few years there has been a movement away from foam and fabric to mesh,” Morley says. A mesh chair is made from a lightweight material that has no fabric on it and allows free and constant movement of air, thus reducing heat build up.
“Have you ever taken a family trip to the beach on a hot day?” asks Morley. “If you’re riding in a car with leather seats, by the time you get there everything from the waist down is soaked. You get uncomfortable. The same thing happens in an office chair; it’s the direct result of poor air flow.”
Another benefit of using mesh material in chairs is entirely ergonomic. “A mesh material can create the contours of support that are appropriate for the people that use the seat,” says Morley.
A mesh office chair has an added advantage, Morley continues. “Most of the mesh chairs I’ve seen are made of a plastic material, like nylon or polypropylene. It’s very durable. You can pour coffee on it and wipe it down.” Because a mesh chair is so easy to clean, there will be fewer calls requiring maintenance or replacement.
How We Sit
Just because there are a variety of tasks that are performed while working at a desk, does not mean that comfort and support should be sacrificed to accomplish them-a quality chair will quickly adapt to the needs of the user.
Once a good seat base has been established, other factors like height, arm rests, and lumbar support have to be considered. A chair can be comfortable, but if it does not promote good posture and comfort while working, the chair will fail to have a significant effect on workplace comfort.
“Another critical element of a good chair is height, particularly the ability to adjust the height of a chair,” says Morley. “The whole idea of a chair is that it supports an employee with feet firmly on the ground and no undue pressure on the thighs.”
In the past, the only way to adjust a chair was to hold the base still and spin it around. This took too much time, and as a result, most people didn’t adjust their seats. Because adjustments weren’t made, employees worked in poor position and could develop musculoskeletal disorders.
Today, chairs have abandoned spinning height adjustments for pneumatic approaches. Now all that an employee has to do is pull a lever, and the chair can be adjusted in a seconds.
Adjustments to the height of a chair are not the only modifications that can be made, however. During the course of a day, an employee will typically have to perform different tasks that require various body positions. “Not only do you want to adjust the arm pads in or out for use of the mouse or keyboard, but you should be able to adjust the height of the arms pads easily as well,” Morley explains.
“The last thing to be considered in a good chair is the ability to make an adjustment to the lumbar area while seated,” Morley says. In conjunction with adjustable height and moveable arm rests, a chair that is snug to the lower back will keep the user in a comfortable position and reduce the strain on the lower back.
Chairs designed to provide high levels of comfort are typically more expensive than a normal foam seats. However, a facility manager who values making employees feel at ease should make seating a high priority. A comfortable workstation will cut down on complaints and calls concerning the height of a chair or how to adjust it will decrease significantly.
A Changing Work Environment
Five or seven years ago, the thought of having a flat panel computer screen or laptop computer in nearly every workstation would have seemed ridiculous. To begin with, the technology was still being developed, and, perhaps more importantly, the price was exorbitant-especially when considering the scope of outfitting an entire office. Today, however, flat panel monitors and laptops are becoming increasingly common. And as computers shrink, so does the workspace. Since the office is becoming more cramped, keeping an employee productive can become difficult in small quarters. But new ergonomic technology can maintain proper posture and manage the work surface which helps mitigate feelings of claustrophobia.
“When someone sits at a workstation, there are two things that drive posture: where the eyes look to see work and the position of hands.” says Crenshaw. A laptop can negatively affect posture. “If a laptop was sitting on a desk, in order to use the keyboard, an employee would have to pitch forward, lean both arms on the desk, and hunch over to see the screen. In this case, not only is there contact stress between arms and the desk, but the worker has also been pulled out of the back of the chair, which is no longer supporting anything.” This all adds up to bad posture.
One solution for facility managers is a laptop holder. “The computer screen is at a better level so users can sit back,” Crenshaw explains.
Having the laptop in a position that is natural to look at placates the first half of proper ergonomics: where the eyes look. “Our bodies follow our eyes. If someone does not have to strain to look at their computer-which is where most people spend the majority of their time looking-then a workstation is heading in the right ergonomic direction,” says Crenshaw.
The second ergonomic consideration in the workstation is the positioning of the upper extremities. In order to be comfortable and ergonomically correct, there should be no contact between arms and desktops.
One solution is a keyboard drawer. According to Morley, if a drawer with a keyboard is placed 2″ or 3″ lower than the height of the work desk, it can be more comfortable for the user.
Once manufacturers noticed this trend, they began to offer devices called articulating arms. “These are flat surfaces that have the keyboard on them, but when you pull them out, the angle can be changed either positively or negatively,” says Morley.
This may be beneficial to both employees and facility managers. By using an articulating arm, an employee is able to break free of a ridged workspace. Instead of being forced to set the keyboard in one place and at one angle, an articulating arm allows workers to determine what is most comfortable.
A facility manager can appreciate the benefits of articulating arms in terms of workstation size. The arm is a flat piece of material that is attached to a moveable arm which is anchored to a desk. Combined with a laptop computer or flat panel monitor, the overall surface area that an employee will need to work can shrink significantly. “Now instead of a workstation that is 6′ x 8′, a facility manager might be able to reconfigure office size to 5′ x 7′,” Morley says.
Even though the workplace continues to get smaller, the comfort of employees is on the rise. Making the right decisions can have a positive impact on the workplace, says Crenshaw, “We try to achieve a high degree of functionality, and do it with something that is comfortable, and easy to use.” This new way of thinking about the workstation has given rise to technologies that consider the needs of the employee. By adapting and accommodating to the needs of individuals, productivity continues to rise and facility managers can take part of the credit.