How Long Can You Stand to Sit?

Ergonomic furniture means less pain for employees, more gain for employers.

ERGONOMIC furniture is not a new concept, but among many office workers--from secretaries to CEOs--it remains unknown or misunderstood. According to a recent survey conducted by our company, only about one in four American office workers is at least somewhat familiar with the usage and benefits of ergonomic furnishings in the workplace.

Simply defined, ergonomics is the practice of fitting an office environment to an individual worker's body type and preferences--creating a very personalized sense of comfort. No two workers are alike; therefore, no two workstations should be exactly alike. Although ergonomic furnishings have been around for several decades, only a small percentage of offices currently integrate ergonomic furnishings into their floor plans. Yet it is proven that the application of ergonomic principles has benefits for both employers and employees. This especially holds true as the U.S. workforce ages and as work hours steadily grow longer because of demands for increased productivity and output.

In short, when people feel physically comfortable in their office environments, they are more likely to generate quality work in a shorter amount of time, and also to have a more positive attitude about their jobs, contributing to overall office morale.

One of the most convincing arguments supporting the need for ergonomic furniture in the workplace is the increasing number of injuries reported among workers who do not engage in heavy labor. For instance, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that in the year 2000, data entry keyers were absent from work, on average, 10 days a year because of workplace injuries. Overall, they missed more days than laborers in the manufacturing, precision production and service industries.

This statistic isn't surprising when you realize data entry workers spend hours at a time in the same static positions, making repetitive movements that often result in their arms and wrists resting on the hard edges of computer desks. All of these are factors that can result in a cumulative trauma disorder or a repetitive strain injury. In fact, according to the survey, there is an epidemic of aches and pains among office workers in the United States, with nearly 89 percent of respondents saying they experience tired or tense muscles at least occasionally at the end of a work day and 17 percent reporting they have been diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome, a more and more common RSI.

These findings are especially disheartening for employers, who are at a greater risk of receiving worker's compensation claims from their employees, potentially requiring them to reimburse each employee for 100 percent of medical expenses incurred because of the injury. Seen from this perspective, the purchase of ergonomic office furnishings is an investment in employee health and safety--a smart option to alleviate the severity of existing conditions and prevent new injuries.

Choosing the Right Equipment
A variety of ergonomic furnishings on the market help to reduce the pain and pressure placed on the bodies of office workers who spend most of their days behind a desk or at a computer. For instance, articulating flat panel display (FPD) arms allow computer users to adjust the height and tilt of their flat panel screens to find positions that feel most comfortable and alleviate neck strain and tension. Other features crucial to user comfort and convenience include a three-pivot design for focal distance adjustment that especially benefits an aging workforce whose members rely often on bifocals or other corrective eyewear. An adjustable-height pneumatic strut design also makes it easy for computer users to determine the most comfortable monitor heights and return to them repeatedly, which is useful if desks or cubicles are shared by many workers.

Another ergonomic advancement that aids the regular computer user is the articulating adjustable keyboard arm, which allows workers to change their typing positions effortlessly throughout the day. The newest generation of adjustable keyboard arms offers easy lift and lock height adjustment, combined with a new dual adjustable counter balance spring design that makes it simple and quick to find the most comfortable height for any task. A new tilt indication gauge means users can determine their most preferred angles for typing or keyboarding, a feature that 82 percent of respondents to our survey desire in a keyboard arm.

Sitting, Standing, and Productivity
Ergonomic furnishings not only relieve physical aches and pains for workers, according to the survey, but also they can help to alleviate management woes of lower productivity. More than two-thirds of study respondents reported the need to leave their desks and stretch their legs at least five times daily. Assuming each break lasts approximately 10 minutes, nearly an hour of potential work time is lost per employee each day. It's also important to consider the indirect loss of productivity that occurs when employees walking around the office interrupt others and prevent them from conducting their work.

While it might be a common assumption that most people would prefer to sit rather than stand while working, more than half of survey respondents (57 percent) would spend at least part of their office time standing if provided the opportunity. Most would love to "take a stand" while meeting with colleagues, although others would most want to stand while talking on the phone or even working at their computers. Not surprisingly, then, the majority of respondents (92 percent) would prefer a desk or workstation that allowed them to make minor adjustments in height, believing that such a customized touch would eliminate the majority of their work-related pain.

A major study conducted by the Cornell University Human Factors and Ergonomics Research Laboratory in 2004 proves height-adjustable office furnishings significantly decrease the severity of musculoskeletal discomfort for most upper body regions, including the shoulders, neck, arms, and hands. In this study, 33 computer workers from two companies were stationed at fixed-height work surfaces for four to six weeks, then switched to height-adjustable work surfaces for another four to six weeks. At the end of the study, participants were asked to evaluate the differences between workstations and to describe any changes in the frequency or severity of their aches, pains, or muscle tension.

Overall, there was a strong preference for the height-adjustable work surfaces, with participants making comments such as:

* "As soon as I started to feel any pain, I adjusted the table height and the pain either went away or got better. This is very necessary for working long hours."
* "I suffered severe pain in my neck, but after I got this table, I started feeling so much better."
* "I wasn't in pain before, but with this table, my sitting and working posture felt good. . . . I stopped squirming in my chair with this adjustable height workstation."
* "The varying heights definitely helped to avoid 'repetitive stress' in a big way."
* "I find that standing three to four times a day helps my neck and back (I usually stand for 20 to 30 minutes at a time). This allows me to stretch and move while continuing with my work. I still take a few short breaks, but these are more to give my eyes a rest from the monitor."

Scientists who conducted the study concluded that because of the decrease in musculoskeletal discomfort that participants experienced over a relatively short period of time, the potential physical benefits of long-term use may be significant. This survey eventually could have substantial implications on the future of office planning and the popularity of ergonomic office furnishings. Sit-to-stand work centers feature exceptional height ranges to accommodate all workers and make it easy for users to move positions at the touch of a button or to make minor adjustments throughout the day. Alternating between sitting and standing both can reduce pressure on the vertebrae and increase circulation to the legs, as well as virtually eliminate lower back pain.

As the level of worker comfort decreases while the variety and availability of height- and tilt-adjustable furnishings increases, the working world is poised on the edge of an ergonomic revolution. Before long, it may be uncommon to find an office that isn't outfitted with furniture customized to the personal preferences of its happy and productive users. In the meantime, ask yourself how much longer you can stand to sit.

This article appeared in the September 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.


This article originally appeared in the September 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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