Sitting Pretty

Education is serious business and a school’s business office is the heart of its operations. School managers and administrators set the pace for the success of the educational enterprise. They require office furniture that helps them to remain comfortable, fresh and productive through the workday. A school’s office staff members spend even more time at their workstations than managers and teachers. They especially need furniture that fits them and the work they do.

What Is Ergonomics?

Ergonomic seating is a critical furniture component of a school office, but may not be the easiest component to specify or purchase. That’s because the word “ergonomic” is sometimes used to sell chairs regardless of their true ergonomic benefits. Another problem is that schools may select furniture solely on low bid, rather than the best quality/price combination. As a result, the office staff has to “make do” with chairs that do not provide a proper fit and do not meet basic ergonomic needs.

Correctly selected ergonomic seating is a key to maintaining proper posture and reducing risk of musculoskeletal and cumulative trauma disorders. Office workers should be able to sit comfortably with their feet on the floor, with knees in a comfortable position, and no feeling of discomfort, pressure or obstruction in the legs. The head should be vertical, so that the neck is not stressed by holding it off balance. The head should face forward of the plane of the upper body most of the time, minimizing repetitive or long-duration head rotation.

Computer operators should be able to reach workstation accessories without extending their reach, especially if they have to hold the position for long periods, their trunk or torso is shifted from the norm or the task is repetitive. The shoulder position should be neutral, with upper arms tucked close to the body and hanging relaxed, elbows also close to the body and wrists and hands in a straight line with the lower arms.

The correctly selected ergonomic chair serves as a tool to enhance office productivity. The chair supports the user’s torso and hips as needed when doing highly repetitive work, such as collating or concentrating on a task such as computer work. The chair also gives the user the flexibility to move around from time to time, readjust the seating position while talking on the phone and relax for a few moments to plan work or rekindle energies.

Shop for Quality and Adjustability

A school does not necessarily need to purchase a different model of chair to meet the ergonomic requirements of each individual chair user and work task. Instead, take the time to evaluate the brands and models of chairs on the market. Narrow your focus to manufacturers that offer true ergonomic features and quality in their chairs. Select a small group of models -- perhaps only one or two -- with ergonomic features plus the adjustability to meet the needs of the office staff. Remember, however, that an individual with special physical needs may require a specific type of ergonomic chair (for example, an individual who has an atypical curvature of the spine may not want a backrest with lumbar support).

Adjustability of both backrest and seat enables a chair to adapt to and support posture changes quickly and easily -- for the same person at different times throughout the day, or for different school personnel who use the chair. When workers can make an easy adjustment while remaining seated, they are more apt to maintain good posture, remain comfortable and reduce risk of injury. The backrest should have lumbar (low back) support to maintain the back’s natural S-curve, plus height and tilt adjustability to ensure that the lumbar support fits the back. The combination of lumbar support and height/tilt adjustability maximizes weight distribution and allows sufficient hip room.

The seat pan should be at least one inch wider than the chair user’s hips and thighs on either side, and should be deep enough to allow room between the lumbar support and the hips. For optimum comfort, the seat pan should have a waterfall front (a front edge that is well-rounded), a concave contour and sufficient cushioning to prevent feeling the seat board (if you can feel the seat board when you press downward, the seat’s foam will compact with use and cause discomfort).

Both Tilt and Height Adjustability Needed

The seated chair user should be able to adjust both seat tilt and seat height. Tilt adjustability helps maintain a proper torso-to-thigh angle, and height adjustability helps ensure that both feet are supported properly.

Select chairs with a seat-height adjustment range that fits both user(s) and level of work. Level of work incorporates not just the height of the work surface, but the entire distance from the floor to where the worker’s hands are doing the task. A computer operator’s work level is where the hands are resting at the keyboard, not the height of the surface on which the keyboard is resting.

Variations in body shapes and sizes make it impractical to use a single calculation to determine the exact optimum seat height for every individual and work application. An ergonomic chair manufacturer’s representative also should be able to provide information about the seat-height adjustment range that is appropriate.

For most school offices, a good choice is a swivel chair with a sturdy five-legged base that supports frequent motion. Casters are an important feature when work requires chair mobility. Armrests that are broad, contoured and comfortable provide forearm and wrist support, an important consideration in using a computer mouse. Armrests with adjustable height and width offer maximum flexibility.

Durability is important in office seating. Note the chair’s construction features. The upholstered backrest should have a plastic protective panel on the back and edges. The seat should be built with an internal bumper guard to protect the edges. The internal seat board should be sturdy.

Evaluate Manufacturers’ Capabilities

In addition to analyzing chair models, evaluate chair manufacturers for certain basic capabilities, including:

- Modular Construction - Look for manufacturers whose chairs allow interchangeability of backrests, seat pans, armrests, bases and cylinders. Modular construction enables easy upgrading and addition of options so that the chairs can continue to fit users long after the chairs go into service.

- Variety of Options – Select a manufacturer with a long list of available options. BioFit Engineered Products, for example, offers not only a wide selection of models but numerous backrests, seats, armrests, seat and backrest controls, bases, footrings, casters, glides, upholsteries and fabrics to “customize” a basic chair model for a particular application.

- On-Site Retrofit - A manufacturer should offer retrofitting at the school to help ensure that chairs provide the best “ergonomic fit” for the users and applications. Full support service is important during the period when the office staff is getting used to their new chairs.

- Warranty - Compare manufacturers’ warranties on their chairs and components, including the pneumatic cylinder, base, ergonomic controls, casters and glides, and upholstery fabrics. Inspect the warranty’s covered items and conditions, and be sure that the manufacturer has the experience, credibility and resources to back its warranty. Look for certification that the manufacturer complies with ANSI/ BIFMA X5.1-1993, a quality standard established by the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association (BIFMA).

Following these guidelines should result in seating that is comfortable for the office staff, boosts morale and productivity and proves cost-effective because of its quality and durability. In summary, survey the marketplace, analyze manufacturers as well as models, narrow your selection to the models that will meet basic needs, focus on chair adjustability to achieve flexibility and versatility, work with an experienced ergonomic seating representative who offers full service support - and enjoy your new chairs!

Edward A. Metzger is the vice president of Sales and Marketing for BioFit Engineered Products.