Working With Your Chair, Not Against It

March 22, 2016

One of the most frequent complaints I hear from people I am doing an ergonomics assessment for is how horrible their chair is. It’s uncomfortable, they’ve tried using a pillow, using a blanket, doing odd things with tape, and yet no matter what they try, they’re still experiencing discomfort, sometimes major discomfort such as the inability to get out of the chair without back pain. Granted, sometimes the problem is the chair, but very often the chair in question is a fully adjustable, fully functioning ergonomic chair. The problem is that the person has no idea how to use it properly.

While in many contexts using a chair “properly” is as simple as sitting down in it, the chairs we use for work, because we spend so much time in them, require a little more effort. The chair must be adjusted correctly and the employee must be sitting in the proper position (called “sitting in neutral”).

Just the other day I did an evaluation at a client site. The person I was evaluating, “Wendy,” was sitting in a cushy looking “executive style” chair where the only adjustability was height. The arm rests were fixed to the back rest and seat pan. Adjustability is key to a good ergonomic chair, because if you can adjust the chair then a wider range of people can actually “fit” into the chair. Wendy had a small pillow she was placing into the curve of the lower back in order to provide support for her lumbar area. This is the most important place for a person to have support in a chair, but this chair had no adjustable lumbar support. When Wendy stood up the pillow moved, so every time she sat down she had to remember to put the cushion back into the correct spot on her lower back. How many times a day do you think she did not put the cushion back in place? I actually have photographic evidence of her not using the pillow as a lumbar support but sitting on the pillow instead. Sitting on the pillow is not helping support her back! People get in a hurry, they have multiple tasks at hand, they cannot always remember to put the little pillow back in place. I call this solution a “band-aid” because it is temporary, not something you want to use long term.

Then Wendy told me her “other” chair was over in the corner. It turned out that this other chair was a fully adjustable ergonomic chair in excellent condition. When I asked Wendy why she wasn’t using it, as it had fully adjustable lumbar support, she replied, “Oh that chair is so uncomfortable, that chair hurt my back. I had tape all over it trying to get it to work.” I suggested we give it a try, to see if I could get it to work for her.

I made the seat pan longer, changed the angle of the seat pan to have a slight negative tilt so that there was no pressure on the back of her legs, adjusted the lumbar support to fit into the curve her back and adjusted the back rest angle to allow for the alignment of ears, shoulder, elbow and hip. Wendy then sat in this chair and the look of relief was palpable on her face. Wendy was comfortable. The chair fit! No tape needed. No pillow needed. No new chair needed.

This is why ergonomic assessments are so important. Companies can spend good money on a fine ergonomic chair and their employees have no idea how to adjust it to their body. Purchasing a good chair for employees is not even half the solution. Teaching employees how to sit in neutral and how to correctly operate and adjust their chair is incredibly important, will minimize the injuries associated with incorrect posture, and ultimately save the company money.

Wendy had not been educated in either how to sit in neutral, nor in how to adjust her chair, and she is far from the exception. Of the over 10,000 evaluations I’ve done, perhaps 3% involved people actually knew how to adjust their chair, and even fewer understood how to position their body properly by sitting in neutral.

Hiring an ergonomist will help you and your employees adjust those expensive chairs they are complaining are uncomfortable. And if they’re sitting in old, worn out chairs, having an ergonomist come to evaluate the employees and their specific needs will allow you to purchase appropriate chairs.

To schedule an ergonomic assessment for yourself or your company please contact:

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