The Good Seat

Ergonomics in the office environment is nothing new. Today, actively ergonomic task chairs and variable-height work surfaces protect people from a variety of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). A safer, healthier workplace has become de rigueur for the modern employee. But what about tomorrow’s human resources? Today’s students are computing earlier and longer than we ever will, and complaining about neck and back pain sooner they we ever did. Is the time ripe to look at ergonomics in the college environment?

The cost of MSDs is undeniable. OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) estimates that in 1999, work-related MSDs accounted for 34 percent of all occupational injuries and illnesses. Estimates for worker’s compensation costs associated with MSDs range from $15 to more than $45 billion. While difficult to track because numbers only exist for the working population, children and young adults also fit into that mix. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that in 2002, 500,000 people took time from work to treat and recover from work-related MSDs. Nine thousand of those people were children aged 16 to 19, and more than 47,000 were young adults aged 20 to 24.

These numbers promise to grow as students start computer work younger and younger. Elementary schools include keyboarding in their curriculum, while gaming, instant messaging, research and other schoolwork take up bigger and bigger chunks of older children’s time. If it takes — as Dr. Alan Hedge, professor of ergonomics at Cornell University, believes — 10 years for repetitive strain injuries to set in, then by the time students enter college, they are ripe for computer-related damage.

Consider further just how much computer time college students put in over their course of study. A phenomenon known as“binge computing,” where students work for an extended period of time without a break, is“an emerging problem in college kids,” says Dr. Benjamin Amick from the University Of Texas School Of Public Health, and the man who coined the term.

Even without binging, students put in plenty of keyboard time. “Eight years ago we visited 27 colleges and universities across the country and saw a lot of laptops in the classroom and lecture hall. That number has only increased,” says Randy Smith, vice president, Virco. In fact, the “inherently ergonomically incorrect laptop,” according to Herman Miller, Inc.’s Research Program Manager Gretchen M. Gscheidle, is now as ubiquitous as a notebook and pencil.


Ergonomics at the College Level

Ergonomic training, a staple in the corporate environment, remains inadequate at the college level. Researchers surveying 512 students at a western university found that while 95 percent of them used computers at home, only 10 percent received home training on ergonomics. This increases to 26 percent in school and 60 percent at work. “No one knows how to sit and work right,” complains Reggie Reid, regional sales and rental manager of Adirondack Direct.

All of this incorrect computing is already having an effect on the previously mentioned study group. Seventy percent of the 512 report upper back and neck pain. Students have also missed up to 21 days of school due to their injuries and up to 30 days of work. Other studies point in similar directions. For instance, Dr. Amick, along with Harvard University’s Dr. Jeffrey Katz, surveyed senior undergraduates at a private university asking if they experienced pain, numbness, tingling or other discomfort in their hands, wrists or arms when using a computer. Forty-seven percent reported never having symptoms; 41 percent reported symptoms after several hours and 12 percent reported symptoms after one hour or less.

In answer, some college students are leading grassroots efforts to educate others about and how to prevent computer-related injuries. Students at Harvard and Stanford are trying to raise awareness with Websites that target young computer users around the country. When queried, pupils will voice their concerns. “They have been asking for a ‘more comfortable chair,’” reports Smith. “What they really want is something ergonomically correct.”

Are schools going to deliver it?

“I have to admit that ergonomics are not on the top of the selection criteria list at colleges,” says Brian Krenke, vice president of Product Management, KI. He goes on to say that education has been his company’s core market since the 1980s, and ergonomics has never been in the vocabulary. “Chairs need to be comfortable, but no one is putting students into a high-end, fully adjustable task chair.”

Concessions have been made to the electronic nature of schoolwork. “Tablet arms have gotten big enough to accommodate an open binder and laptop,” reports Smith. “But they have mostly given way to training tables with separate chairs.”

Computer labs are one area where schools are giving ergonomics a serious look. According to Krenke, “adjustable-height tables or desks are appropriate here. Schools are also ordering urethane edges on those tables, which are easier on the wrist.”

Chairs are also evolving to deliver passive and affordable ergonomics. Simple things like concave seats, waterfall fronts and flexible backrests allow students to shift their bodies and relieve pressure points. Inexpensive height-adjustment mechanisms remain robust enough to handle rough use while allowing a custom fit.


Ergonomics in the Lab Environment

The lab represents one place where more active ergonomic seating is being ordered. “I attribute that to the fact that the professors usually equip their own labs, and they seem intrigued by the more advanced, actively ergonomic chairs,” reports Max Church, national sales manager, Biofit Engineering. “An advantage to these seats is they go from lab bench height to desk height easily, so you only need one chair for both applications.” While cost remains a huge deciding factor in furniture choice, Gscheidle insists that a huge budget is not necessary for a healthy environment.

“Ergonomics is only 50 percent furniture,” she insists. “The other piece is knowledge, like knowing how to work, when to take breaks and when to use an external mouse with a laptop, for instance. This can be achieved with a Website, or training or both.” She also insists that there are always ways around bad furniture. “Simple, inexpensive accommodations like a footrest or a raised computer screen can make all the difference,” she says.

Ultimately, schools must give students a comfortable environment to excel. Dr. Dieter Breithecker, in a study on development of posture and exercise in German schools, says, “What is taken for granted today for every office place or work — that it must provide the ergonomic surroundings for maintaining the health and psycho-physical well-being of the employee — is neglected in schools for economic reasons and ignorance. However, the school is a ‘place of work’ not only for teachers but for the children as well.”

Many of the statistics and quotes for this article were taken from “Primed for Injury,” a white paper produced by Herman Miller. To view this article in its entirety, go to: www.hermanmiller.com/hm/content/research_summaries/wp_Primed_for_Injury.pdf.

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