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Mon 20 Jul 2009 04:00 AM

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The art of ergonomics

Good ergonomics and proper space planning can help ease the pain of long hours in the office.

The art of ergonomics
Filo by Bene.
The art of ergonomics
Back Office by Bene.
The art of ergonomics
The new Setu family from Herman Miller.
The art of ergonomics
Ergonomic seating from Wilkhahn.
The art of ergonomics
Bene’s T-Workstation.
The art of ergonomics
Solutions from Gemaco.
The art of ergonomics
Solutions from Gemaco.
The art of ergonomics
A Bene workstation.
The art of ergonomics
Modus from Wilkhahn.
The art of ergonomics
A complete workstation by Bafco.

Good ergonomics and proper space planning can help ease the pain of long hours in the office.

For those of us who are rendered desk-bound by our line of work, it is likely we will spend approximately 75,000 hours of our working lives sitting down, hunched over a PC.

Given that the human body was not designed to spend such long periods of time in a seated position, it's no wonder that with office work comes all sorts of aches and pains, with joint ache, RSI (repetitive strain injury) and lower back pain being amongst the most common. In fact, back pain is the second largest cause of office absenteeism and the number one cause of disability for office workers under the age of 45.

Experts in office planning say the key to maintaining a pain-free working environment is ergonomics - the science of designing the workplace to suit the worker, rather than the other way around. "Ergonomics is a design-based discipline concerned with fitting tasks and environments to workers," explained Gilbert A. Griño, senior marketing executive at Bafco.

"When a proper fit is achieved, workers report reduced discomfort, improved task efficiency, and fewer work-related musculoskeletal disorders, such as lower back and neck pain. Applied ergonomics in the office means a more productive and healthier workforce, and reduced absenteeism," he said.

Are you sitting comfortably?

Investment in an ergonomically designed workplace is a win-win situation for both employees and managers - and with a host of state-of-the-art products on the market, from ergonomic office chairs to footrests, creating a healthy working environment is easier than ever.

One of the most important aspects of ergonomic design is a proper, adjustable chair. As body shapes differ widely, what is right for one person will not necessarily be ergonomically-appropriate for someone else, so the best chairs are designed to adapt to the individual.

In terms of selecting the right chair, the key factor is simplicity - too many levers and buttons and people simply won't bother to use them, making the entire investment completely pointless.

Burkhard Remmers, head of international corporate communications at Wilkhahn, explained that simplicity of design is so crucial to the company's line of ergonomic office furniture that its FS and Modus range of swivel chairs have remained industry benchmarks for the last 30 and 15 years.

"Both programmes are still ergonomic and aesthetic industry benchmarks today. Almost all innovations of the past few years have concentrated just on the details in order to achieve improvements.

"The latest ‘sitting machines' collide with holistic ergonomics, from our point of view. The more levers for changing postures, the less they are used - and a design resembling a medical gadget makes people sick by nature," he added.

Later this year, Wilkhahn will be launching a brand new range of healthy office seating, which has been under development for five years.

Meanwhile, Humanscale launched a brand new office chair at the recent Neocon show in Chicago. The Diffrient World Chair is striking for the simplicity of its design. It is made from just eight major parts, and the design has done away with levers and buttons completely.

The chair has a weight sensitive recline which automatically adjusts to the needs of each user, offering appropriate levels of resistance without any locks, dials or other manual controls. Humanscale will begin production of the product later this year and it will be available through Bafco Middle East.

Research conducted for Herman Miller's whitepaper ‘On the Move' reiterated the fact that today's businesses are working towards a new model borne out of collaborative work, the need for multiple venues and most of all, the demand for mobility.

In response to these principles, Herman Miller has designed the Setu family - what it describes as the next generation of ‘multi-purpose work chairs', as opposed to simple task chairs. A task chair is described as suiting those based at workstations for long periods of time every day, whilst a multi-purpose work chair, such as Setu, is designed to bring flexibility, motion and ergonomics to an active user.

"Multi-purpose chairs are used where people sit for shorter periods and frequently move, such as conference rooms, touchdown workstations and collaborative spaces. However, these so called ‘temporary' spaces are now less temporary," said Chloe Richardson, seating product manager at Herman Miller.

"For many of us, all the places we sit are short-term, as we move throughout the day, spending an hour or two at a time in different places.

"The Setu family of chairs provides unique new standards of comfort, performance and value. It's made from an innovative combination of stylish and comfortable materials to provide remarkable levels of strength, flexibility and simplicity," she added.

Designed by Studio 7.5 of Berlin, the Setu family currently includes the Setu 5-star, 4-star, butterfly, butterfly stool and lounge and ottoman, with more models in the pipeline. With only one adjustment for height, the seat has tilt-like kinematics for ease and comfort. Kicking bad habits

In spite of such amazing advancements in chair technology, office planners and furniture manufactures all agree on one thing - ergonomics is not just about the furniture. Even the latest, most expensive, top-of-the-range, fully adjustable swivel chair will not help to ease aches and pains if the entire workplace environment is not looked at in a holistic way, and bad habits are not changed - slouching will cause damage regardless of how brilliantly designed the chair might be.

According to Kaj Hjelstrand, design manager at Gemaco, a well-designed, ergonomic environment must take a number of different factors into account, including "good lighting design, access to daylight, good office layout, and not being forced to sit at your desk for everything you do."

He added: "A good ergonomic task chair will, if used correctly, make the body ‘happier' but it cannot solve a bad posture created due to poor or insufficient lighting, as just one example."

Office workers should ideally be getting up from their chairs for at least ten minutes every hour to stretch their bodies, while lunch breaks should be spent taking a stroll to exercise stiff joints.

Bad office worker habits such as ‘googling while eating a sandwich at the desk' will definitely lead to aches and pains in later life. As such, Hjelstrand recommended that designers use office layout to encourage increased movement among employees. One way of doing this is to place the most used storage units out of arm's reach.

"A good ergonomic solution is designing the space so that you have to move your body throughout the day. It is tempting to design a workstation with a cabinet just next to it, but by space planning storage areas away from the desks you force the employee to get out of his seat, which means they will exercise the body frequently. This is good ergonomics," Hjelstrand explained.

Another idea, which admittedly has not really taken off among office planners yet, is to move away from the traditional idea of being seated at a desk all day, and instead incorporate workstations which have been specially designed to allow the user to alternate between sitting and standing postures - the T-Lift Desk from Bene, for example, which has won a Red Dot Award.

Ursula Grabher, head of public relations at Bene admits that this kind of sitting/standing product is perhaps a bit too radical for a Middle East office, in spite of the obvious health benefits.

"It is characteristic of the information age that more and more people sit for prolonged periods of time, often in a bad chair or posture, despite the fact that the human body is made for movement. Indeed, we wonder why many office planners in the Middle East still ignore workstations which allow alternating postures between sitting and standing," she said.

A healthy workforce

In the Middle East, the main problem is that there are no guidelines for ensuring that ergonomic principles are incorporated into office design. While international companies often have global guidelines and requirements that have to be met, the rest of the region's employers are still lagging behind.

"Ergonomics here in the Middle East is still in its infancy," said Griño. "One of our primary goals is to educate clients and interior designers in the region on how to properly design and apply ergonomic principles in the workplace.

"People in the Middle East sometimes use the term ‘ergonomic' in their marketing too much, so that the market becomes confused and associates it with the wrong things. Ergonomics is not about one chair, product or tool but a combination of elements."

With the onset of the economic downturn, it's likely that cost-cutting measures and reduced budgets will see even less focus being placed on creating a healthy working environment. However, experts say this is entirely the wrong approach; after all, the healthier and happier a workforce is, the more productive they are in the long run.

"As office furniture specialists we appeal to the long-term cost awareness of employers," said Grabher. "Employee health problems can lead to absence from work and to a deterioration in performance. These arguments are supported by a simple business equation: 80% of the total expenditure is consumed by personnel costs and 20% by furnishing costs. The cost of an ergonomic chair is dissolved in no time when the user is able to work without having back pain."

Wilkhahn's Remmers agreed. "Of course, the crisis has negative effects, as budgets have been reduced or put on hold. Some companies will buy cheaper products, regardless of the costs in the future. But those trusting in long-term success would rather invest more in the quality of their work environment.

"A company's employees are its most valuable asset. Everything else is comparable, exchangeable and therefore not crucial for competition."

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