According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration,1 one in every five workplace illnesses or injuries can be attributed to back injuries, and one in every four compensation indemnity claims are back-injury related. While some of those back injuries result from accidents or from actions like repetitive lifting, others are caused by poor posture when sitting, staying in one position for too long, or sitting in poorly designed workstations. An employee can go a long way toward preventing injury by sitting in an office chair that is ergonomic, comfortable, and properly designed to reduce stress on the body.
Choosing an Office Chair
The OSHA website2 states that a “well-designed and appropriately adjusted” chair is essential to a safe work environment, and the website provides several guidelines for what makes a good chair. According to OSHA, a good chair:
- Supports the back, buttocks, legs, and arms
- Reduces or eliminates the need to sit awkwardly or with improper posture
- Limits contact stress
- Reduces forceful exertions
OSHA also suggests that, whenever possible, the person who will be using the chair regularly should test the chair for comfort and fit before the chair is purchased. Because this isn’t often possible in an office environment where chairs are purchased in bulk or where employees may come and go, OSHA advises that chairs be adjustable so individual users can modify the chairs to meet their needs.
Important Elements of a Chair
Aside from making sure your chair is adjustable and trying out the chair before purchase whenever possible, you should look for several characteristics in any chair you consider buying:
- The chair’s backrest should provide sufficient back support. The chair should provide this support in a variety of different sitting positions, including reclining at least 15 degrees. It is best if the lumbar support is height-adjustable and can be moved back and forth so it can be altered to fall at the small of the back, as well as accommodate both shorter and taller people. The backrest should also be lockable in place so it does not move involuntarily.
- The chair’s backrest should conform to the spine’s natural curve. When this is not possible, a lumbar-support cushion or even a rolled-up towel can be used to make the chair better support the shape of the user’s back.
- The seat of the chair should not be too high or too low. A person should be able to put his feet flat on the floor when sitting in the chair. It is best if the chair’s seat pan is adjustable so users of different heights may use the chair.
- The seat of the chair should be comfortable. OSHA recommends a padded cushion and a waterfall edge on the cushion. If the chair becomes worn and the user begins to feel the springs, the chair should be replaced.
- The cushion of the seat should be wide enough. A person’s buttocks should fit comfortably without his hips extending over the sides of the seat cushion.
- The chair should have at least five legs. Four or fewer legs can make the chair less comfortable and more likely to tip. Having casters on the legs is a good idea to avoid awkward reaches and bending, but the casters should be appropriate to the type of flooring material used.
- Armrests are optional. If they are present, they should be adjustable to avoid forcing a person into an awkward position or making it difficult for him to get into or out of the chair. The armrests should also be made from soft materials that do not irritate the skin, and they should not have sharp corners.
Choosing a Chair
Choosing the right chair is a question of balancing the needs of the users with the budget available for office furniture. Although you would facilitate maximum employee comfort by allowing each employee to pick out her own chair, you should ultimately choose a chair that meets as many of the OSHA criteria as possible and that allows a user to customize it to her own needs.
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