BitDepth 542 - September 19

Chairs can be comfortable or they can be painful...
The agony of the seat

STAR's Lisa Niles, Carla Rauseo & Nicole De Frietas, the Steelcase Leap chair, Troy Nieves of Total Office. Photos by Mark Lyndersay

For most of my adult life, I've had to deal with recurring back pain caused by two compressed vertebrae in my lower back.
Now that I'm gainfully unemployed and responsible for my own ergonomics, I'm taking a second look at the chair I've been using, one that's been jerry-rigged with cushions to support my lower back during long computing sessions.

Thousands of companies will have to do the same kind of reevaluation when they find themselves held more firmly responsible for the safety of their employees once the Occupational Safety and Health Act is proclaimed into the nation's legislation.
The Act has its roots in heavy industry, specifically in the Factories Ordinance of 1949 and the Mines and Borings and Quarries Act, so it encourages executives charged with managing health, safety and environment standards in larger companies to make loud noises about hard hats and safety belts and putting better guard rails on their stairwells.
But the growth of the information society and the pervasiveness of computers means that some of the deadliest HSE dangers in many companies today are lurking under the butts of their employees.

Ergonomics, or human engineering, is the science of adjusting the workplace to the needs of the human body and at its heart is a chair. Chairs are the key support system in most workplaces and are charged with the responsibility of supporting the human body during its daily interactions with the machines and tools that make up a day's work.
According to Troy Nieves of Total Office, more than 95% of current orders for office chairs at his company include a specification for some level of ergonomic control, but there has been only minimal response to the changes that the OSH Act will demand in the knowledge workplace.

"We've had some calls from our larger clients about upgrading their existing equipment," Nieves says, "clients in the energy sector are particularly interested in becoming compliant before the act becomes law."
Can a chair pose "serious and imminent danger" as described by the OSH Act? The damage that an unsuitable chair can wreak is subtle, ongoing and even after it's diagnosed, lingering. It can reduce worker productivity by making its victim fidget and twist to find a comfortable seating position and along the way, it cheats companies of the best efforts of their human resource.

Ergonomic chairs aren't for the faint of pocket. Nieves describes the ergonomic line at Total Office as ranging from $1700 for a model with basic adjustments to $8500 for the top of the line Leap chair in leather.

Managing your workspace
"At least 50 percent of our patients suffer from neck and back pain," says Lisa Niles, therapist with Sports Therapy and Rehabilitation. "Those problems may not have been caused by poor chair support, but they are aggravated by poor seating, particularly for people who sit for longer than five hours."

Posture, Niles says, is key, and an inappropriate chair encourages poor posture. Ergonomic scientists talk about "neutral posture" a seated position in which a worker has their feet flat on the floor, sit erect with good back support, type with arms supported and level and view a computer monitor without having to look up or down at an extreme angle.
"If you have a chair with ergonomic features, make sure that you use them," says Niles. "We've done evaluations for clients who have appropriate chairs, but they haven't adjusted them. An ergonomic chair is only good when it's being used."

Niles looks for the following in a chair...
• The foam and density of a chair must cushion your body, not pass pressures along.
• Chairs should be made of a fabric that can breathe.
• The front edge of the chair seat should curve down to ensure that circulation in the legs isn't limited. The rear of the seat should be slightly higher, which rotates the pelvis forward and moves the spine into full contact with the chair's back support.
• The seat of the chair should move forward and backward to adjust for different body types.
• Lumbar or lower back support should be height adjustable to compensate for different body types.
• "Walk away," Niles suggests. Get up, walk around and stretch at regular intervals.

The Steelcase Leap Chair
The buzz in recent years was all about Herman Miller's Aeron chair, now the word is Leap. According to Raymond Eccles, senior therapist at the Pain Relief and Health Management Centre, "The human body was not designed to sit for long periods. As a result of sitting for a long time, undue strain and tension are put on certain muscles of the back which result in stress not only in the back but also in the neck and hamstrings. You must be able to adjust the support a chair offers during the course of a working day."

On the Leap chair, which looks like the sort of thing Dr Doom might relax in, every component that comes into contact with the human body is adjustable. The seat slides in and out, the arms go up and down and rotate inward and outward, the lumbar support adjusts up and down and its tension can be set.
The challenge a Leap user faces isn't comfort and support, it's figuring out what all the knobs and levers do.
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