Lovely chair that helps greatly but is only part of the solution

Figure 4A diagram of  safe posture at modern workstations has become iconic but it has also become a symbol of ergonomic misunderstanding.  There are assumptions behind the angular figure about the way modern workers work, the equipment used and the tasks undertaken.

Too often images, such as the one included here, are taken out of context.  The image is used as a shortcut to what is considered the “correct” way to sit.  The context, the risk assessments, the tasks undertaken, the location of the workstation – basically all of the OHS information included in the workplace safety guides is ignored.  People think “the picture has a tick of approval, so why read when the picture says enough”?

This week Steelcase, a one hundred year old company that originally constructed waste paper baskets, launched its Gesture chair.  The marketing of this chair is based on the discovery (?) of nine new postures in the workplace:

  • The Draw
  • The Multi-Device
  • The Smart Lean
  • The Text
  • The Cocoon
  • The Swipe
  • The Trance
  • The Take It In
  • The Strunch

These postures are a recognition that the technology and working needs, particularly of office workers, have changed over the last decade or so.  The workstation in the image above is quite dated.  Steelcase’s argument is that the fixed posture of keyboard work and data entry is less relevant and that the type of seating provided applies a rigidity to posture that is contrary to what workers need.

Having attended a launch of the Gesture chair in Melbourne, I can say that the chair was super comfortable but that two features were of special note.  The armrests are super adjustable.  There are several joints of adjustment and extension.  I found having the arms as far forward and as high as possible were perfect for holding and reading a book or a tablet.

The lumbar support was so comfortable that in a short time you did not notice it.  It was not a plastic panel pushing through a mesh back.  It was not a foam pad that pressed on one’s spine.

There were many other good features of the Gesture but this is not an ad and I cannot compare this to an Aeron chair, for instance, which for a long time has the been status-symbol of office chairs, or to many of the Aeron knock-offs.  (I do work in  one location next to a pile of broken office chairs.)  Regardless of Steelcase’s marketing pitch, the Gesture chair is more comfortable than a lot of other office chairs, allows for a level of adjustment that matches the variable sizes and shapes of workers but, most importantly, has armrests that support the variety of modern communications and work tasks.

The claimed research to support the design was not provided at the media event so the evidence base at the moment is dependent of what Steelcase provides.  But the logic is sound as this light-hearted review from the New York Times indicates.

Of course, office workers are less likely to be “locked” into their chairs for the number of hours that has occurred in the past.  (I am old enough to remember the Repetitive Strain Injuries of the data processors in the Australian Taxation Office in the 1980s)  People now go to photocopiers and printers, they answer telephones, they swivel and talk with colleagues, some even leave their desks for a lunch break.  Even with the world’s most comfortable chair, workers will stand up, swivel, move and eventually go home, hopefully.

Steelcase claims to have looked at how modern workers sit.  The OHS professional’s job is also  to look at how workers sit but also where they sit, what they are doing, how long they are performing the task.  A worker’s posture, chair, workstation and tasks need to be assessed together in order to identify any contributors to harm or discomfort and, the selling point in modern workplaces, to ensure that the maximum productivity possible is achieved.  Gesture helps in this but is only one part of the safety solution albeit a very comfortable part.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia
Categories design, ergonomics, executives, guidance, hazards, iPad, OHS, productivity, risk, safety, technology, Uncategorized, workplace

2 thoughts on “Lovely chair that helps greatly but is only part of the solution”

  1. Great to see well-made points about autonomy and job control – people being in control of a key tool in their work.

    \”Nine new postures\” is delightful marketing – none are new to my eye, but by legitimising them Steelcase has created a market (and good on them).

    PS \”lumbar\” not \”lumber\”

  2. Good morning Kevin;

    A couple of years of my career were spent as an OHS advisor in Call Centres. These centres operated on a hot desk arrangement, so each shift had a different person in the chair.

    Many chairs had a label taped to the back \”Do Not Adjust. Set By OHS\”. In many cases these labels had been on the chairs for several years or more, through various operators. No one dared adjust these chairs.

    On day 2 I went through and removed all labels then sat back and waited for the outrage. As operators arrived at my desk, I went through the normal instructions on how to adjust a chair and set up their workspace. It was suprising how many labelled chairs had actually seized.

    I did give the operators one suggestion:
    \”I don\’t care how you sit, so long as you never do it for more than 5 minutes.\”

    After a week, the supervisors stopped asking why so and so was sitting on the floor, why such and such had taken the arms off their chair. Over the next six months complaints of neck and shoulder pain diminished significantly, but more importantly the operators were taking responsibility for their own comfort.

    Many organisations still dictate the rigid right angle chair set up. That doesn\’t allow for any pre-exisiting conditions that the user may have.

    I\’ll use the following analogy – When my kids play the XBox for 12 hours straight, they are still able to get up as fresh as a daisy and raid the fridge. They don\’t use ergonomic chairs, they use whatever is available. More importantly, they never sit still.

    Ergonomic chairs are wonderful, but I\’m of the view that movement and variation in posture is far more important than a theoretical ideal posture.

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