Choosing Specialist Chairs for Individuals in the Workplace

July 5, 2015

I have addressed the choice of a work chair for yourself or for whole teams elsewhere.

This article assumes you have already ordered a suitable quantity of general chairs – or already have them – and now need a procedure to address the needs of those who find the standard option unsuitable, uncomfortable or inadequate. This may be due to dimensional issues (too big/too small/ too wide/too narrow), musculo-skeletal problems (such as back or neck issues, upper limb disorders) or because of disabilities (spinal curvature or limb amputation perhaps).

To ensure consistency of approach, it is most important to establish a procedure for exception management. If it is not clearly defined and strictly observed, there is a real risk that the exception may start to become the norm or that those who shout loudest (not necessarily the most deserving) get the most attention.

Whilst there will be obvious individuals who will not fit the general chair for dimensional reasons, there will be others with less obvious musculo-skeletal or health conditions. The approach should be the same for all of these situations and the most likely triggers for exception management will be:

  1. Escalation as a result of a workstation assessment
  2. Recommendations from a medical professional such as a GP or physiotherapist
  3. Self-reporting

To elaborate on these,

  1. The workstation assessment is the most reliable trigger and it is important to have a robust procedure in place. There are many computer-based systems and the best will provide much of the reporting and escalation structure. Where a manual system is used, it is essential to review assessment reports promptly. Employers producing assessments and failing to act on the outcomes are simply creating evidence to be used against themselves in the event of litigation!
  2. Whilst any report from a medical practitioner should be taken seriously, it should be reviewed carefully if the practitioner proposes any physical or product interventions but does not have an Occupational Health background. GPs, physiotherapists, osteopaths, chiropractors and others have been known to recommend a specific chair model or, perhaps, a ‘swiss ball’. However, they are not usually product specialists and any suggestion will almost certainly be simply a personal preference or based on literature they have read, rather than a holistic approach to the individual’s workplace needs. Their suggestions may not even comply with appropriate legislative requirements! If you have your own in-house occupational health facility, its personnel will almost certainly be in contact with one or more ‘ergo suppliers’ and will therefore have a much better understanding of what products are available and appropriate.
  3. Whilst self reporting should be an option available to all, your procedures should always validate the justification for any escalation. It is therefore most likely that the initial discussion will lead back to 1. or 2. (or both) before any further escalation is approved.

Once you have identified the need for specialist seating through one or more of these three methods, your process needs to manage the escalation and ensure an appropriate outcome. The next stages, and the parties involved, vary from country to country so, for the purposes of this article, the guidance will follow UK best practice.

The individual will now require a one-to-one advanced assessment which will pick up on the information already acquired. If the source of the escalation includes comprehensive data from the workstation assessment (1.) process, a telephonic assessment may be sufficient. If, however, reliable background, anthropometric and relevant medical information are not available, the one-to-one should be on-site in person. There will also be occasions when telephonic assessments become manifestly inappropriate and an on-site appointment becomes inevitable.

Approaches to the escalated assessment process (whether telephonic or in person) vary from employer to employer. The essential ingredient is to ensure that all the knowledge required for an effective outcome is available. The key knowledge requirements are:

  • Understanding the contributory factor(s).
    • This simply means having a good understanding of all the ergonomics and human factors considerations affecting the individual’s work and productivity. The physical considerations will be the most obvious but psycho-social factors will have significant impact so consideration should be given to how the individual enjoys their job, whether they feel supported by their manager and whether they feel in control of their workload as well as environmental factors such as heat, light, air quality and noise.
  • Understanding what needs to be done to address these factors
    • Typically, a medical professional will have this knowledge but may not be familiar with the nature of the work. Competent assessors will have been trained to be fully conversant with the necessary actions and will also have a network of advisers and contacts they can call upon for assistance and guidance where the specific requirements of the assessment are beyond their knowledge or experience.
  • Knowledge of suitable physical and non-physical interventions. This is the most important contributor to a satisfactory outcome.
    • Physical interventions will need a substantial knowledge of the various chair manufacturers and models available as well as the dimensions and features of these chairs and the adaptations available. Many manufacturers offer alternative chair sizes but a much smaller proportion offer a range of interchangeable seatpan and back height sizes, along with other modifications such as coccyx cut-outs, adjustable thoracic supports, massage modules, locking bases, etc. Assessors need to be familiar with these or be in close contact with someone who is. Research* shows that specialist ‘ergo’ suppliers are often the most qualified to provide such knowledge. These offer much more than traditional office furniture suppliers and will have a portfolio of specialist or adaptable products.
    • Non-physical interventions typically take the form of changes in work practice and may involve variations in job role, hours, work location and mix of activities. They will almost always involve consultation with the line manager and/or HR.

Once the assessment and recommendations have been made, it is important for the employer to act as promptly as possible to carry them out. In many organisations, the process leading to the assessment can be protracted. Once the assessment has taken place, however, it becomes clear to the individual that progress is being made and they will expect a timely conclusion.

At the time of installation, the chair (and any other specified equipment) should be set up and configured for the individual with full training provided. The training, which is absolutely crucial to a successful outcome, should explain why the products were supplied, how they will help and how they should be configured and used.

The principal context for this article was to address seating issues but it should be remembered that ergonomics is a holistic discipline and the human factors of the user’s whole environment should also be considered. For example, an assessment of a tall person will almost certainly highlight desk and monitor height issues and a very obese person may need to consider a split keyboard to be able to type comfortably.


* Williams, C. & Haslam, R. (2006). Ergonomics advisors – a homogeneous group?
In: Contemporary Ergonomics 2006, (Edited by P.D.Bust), Taylor & Francis: Great Britain, The Ergonomics Society Annual Conference 2006, Cambridge, UK, pp. 117-121.

Choosing Office Chairs (for the Majority)

July 3, 2015

A while ago, I wrote the article How do I choose an office chair (for myself)? At the time, I promised to follow up soon with an article about choosing a chair for a whole department or organisation. It’s taken longer than planned, but this is that article! A further blog about choosing specialist chairs for individuals in the workplace will follow in a few days.

Manufacturers of workplace seating often talk of products designed to accommodate 90% of the population: meaning everyone except the smallest 5% (5th percentile) and largest 5% (95th percentile).

In reality, this is nothing like as simple as it sounds. A 95th percentile individual is not necessarily made up of 95th percentile body segments and anthropometric (body dimension) data tells us, for example, that a 50th percentile male may be 13cm taller than a 50th percentile woman but is also 1cm narrower across the hips [Pheasant, S. (1986, 1998).  Bodyspace – Anthropometry, Ergonomics and the Design of Work]

In the modern multi-national office, different races complicate the statistics still further and, taking lateral dimensions into account, women change shape in different ways from men as their BMI (Body Mass Index) increases. As obesity becomes more of an issue, specifying a general workplace chair becomes even less straightforward.

It is, therefore, no wonder that many ergonomists believe that the majority of chairs may actually be closer to 60-70% in their accommodation!

How, then, does a conscientious Facilities or Health & Safety Manager ensure best practice?

The answer comes in two parts. First, choose your general chair carefully and, secondly, implement a procedure to provide for those who are not properly served by the general chair. This article addresses the first process.

Choosing a general chair will often involve compromise, whether because of budget constraints, corporate sourcing guidelines or perhaps just the limited knowledge of your incumbent chair supplier! It is most important, therefore, to minimise such compromise and maximise value.

diverse_groupThe following are essential:

  • Create a focus group
  • Ensure it contains male and female personnel of different shapes and sizes and, if you have them, ethnic origins. They should also be different ages and from different parts of the business with varying job roles.
  • If possible, include some users with pre-existing physical disabilities and/or MSDs (musculo-skeletal disorders).
  • Make sure you have right- and left-handers!
  • Involve your Health & Safety and Occupational Health personnel.
  • Draw up a shopping list of features your chair must include (e.g. seat slide, adjustable lumbar support, etc.).
  • Perhaps controversially, I believe that the criteria list should not include any price restriction at this stage. This should be considered later in the process.
  • Using the shopping list, identify a number of chairs from different manufacturers that all meet your criteria in full (no compromises at this stage).
  • Ensure that all the chairs on your list comply with the appropriate international (EN, ISO) standards. The supplier(s) should be able to provide this information and explain the relevance of the various standards issues.
  • Obtain at least one sample of each chair from your preferred supplier(s).
  • Ask the supplier(s) to demonstrate each chair and explain the features and benefits. As well as providing you with an understanding of the various models, this is a good opportunity to judge their knowledge and the likely level of support they will be able to provide in the selection process and subsequent customer support.
  • Design a score card so that each member of the focus group can rate each chair. As well as comfort, other factors such as ease of adjustment and range of adjustment should be included. You may also wish to score non-physical factors such as environmental considerations and whether the design reflects your corporate brand.
  • It is often a good idea to weight the scores for different elements. e.g. sustainability may be rated out of 10 points but the appearance may only be rated out of 5 points. If you decide to use weighting, make sure you do this before the assessment process begins!

If you do not have the experience or the time to operate such a process, find a good ergonomist to advise you and manage the process.

The foregoing procedure should enable you to create a shortlist of 3-4 chairs. This is the stage at which I would recommend introducing price considerations. Doing so will enable you to compare focus group scores with prices and give a more measurable indication of value. You will also be in a stronger negotiating position with your supplier(s) if they know the chair has been shortlisted!

Once you have a shortlist, it should be straightforward to select and purchase the best chair for your requirements. Since this is not an article about negotiating skills, I shall skip the rest of this process.

You can find more information at

My next article outlines how to implement a procedure to provide for those who are not properly served by the general chair.

The Ergonomics Tsunami

April 22, 2015

TsunamiLately, we have been working with a few dynamic organisations who are taking a serious look at the trajectory of workplace ergonomics and the nature of work itself. As I have said elsewhere (and everyone knows), the work environment is changing very fast and, significantly, there are multiple influences.

  • For all knowledge workers (and many others), ‘workplace’ is now an IP address rather than a physical location.
  • Almost-universal Wi-Fi means that we can access information and communicate anywhere
  • Increasingly portable devices, with ever-extending battery life, further support our mobility
  • Simultaneously, employers are downsizing their real estate and reducing the number of desks on site. Hot desking, hoteling, co-worker hubs and home / smart / agile working are becoming widespread.

The list goes on.

One further impact, and perhaps the most dramatic, is the influx of Millennial (or Generation Y) personnel to the workplace. Their attitudes to entitlement, work-life balance, use of technology, privacy and many more of the concepts that older people take for granted are, at least, different and often radical. They have also been using technology of all types, in all sorts of locations and postures, almost since birth.

So why have I called the influx of millennials ‘The Ergonomics Tsunami’?

Because it’s coming, it’s enormous, it’s unstoppable and it’s potentially overwhelming.

I shall be writing more about this in due course but, in the meantime, here are some further resources:

If you read this before the event, you can attend the ErgoExpo webinar featuring Nigel Heaton of Human Applications, Ryan Pavey of Cardinus and myself. It will also be available subsequently as an on-demand video. This takes a primarily musculo-skeletal approach to some of the issues.

For a more psycho-social approach, you can start by looking here at some insight into the work done by Jim Taylour and Dr Patrick Jordan for Orangebox.

What do home workers and online poker players have in common?

April 7, 2015

online_poker_keyboard_blogAre there any similarities between how an online poker player operates and the way many computer users work at home? As it turns out, the answer is ‘Yes, quite a lot’.

I was asked recently to write a ‘Top Ten Ergonomics Tips’ for online poker players. Initially, I saw this as a stand-alone project but, as I researched the process of online poker, it became clear that there are many similarities. Here are a few:

  1. Online poker players (OPPs) operate unsupervised for long periods, often without interruption.
  2. Workstation layout, posture and comfort are critical.
  3. OPPs often use two or more monitors.
  4. OPPs need to maintain concentration to optimise their performance.
  5. Exercise and hydration are very important.

To see the full list of tips and draw your own conclusions about the similarities, view the whole Online Poker Ergonomics article here.

Why do we WoW?

February 10, 2015

WoW LogoI have been thinking about the significance of clever marketing in the creation of a reputation.

The influence of the internet is now so overwhelming that a new product can power its way into the hearts and minds of consumers on the strength of search engine optimisation, Google AdSense and social media alone. However, the fact that ‘everybody’s talking about it’ does not necessarily mean a product is good!

As a vendor of products to improve workplace ergonomics, we have established a procedure to bypass any marketing or publicity bias and ensure our judgements are based on facts. This has been part of our ISO9001 quality system for many years and, although it may appear quite unsophisticated, it has proven itself many times. I have shared our procedure below and welcome comments and observations. At the moment, I believe the process to be unique in the industry but will be flattered (and encouraged!) by any who wish to adopt it.

We call it the ‘WoW Factor’ test. Every new product is reviewed by our WoW Factor committee and it works like this:

Ergonomics and quality are key.  The review committee consists of four people from the Customer Service team and four from Sales.  As well as different roles, it includes men and women of different statures and different psychometric profiles. This helps us to consider both physical ergonomics and human factors. Typically, the Customer Service personnel look at what sort of follow-up, technical questions, setup issues, etc. they might encounter and the sales team look at how attractive it will be to customers!

Each product is given 2 scores:

  1. Wow Factor – would I like one, do I “get it”, is it obvious what it’s for or how to use it?
  2. Usability Score – are the instructions good, is it easy to adjust, does it fulfil our ergonomics expectations, does it “do what it says on the tin”? (We also consider sales price at this stage).

WoW Factor ScoringTotal scores are not an absolute decider but they focus our attention on the key features and benefits as well as providing a basis for comparison to similar products. They also inform our discussion about whether or not the product is good enough to be part of our portfolio.

Sit-Stand Desks: What’s all the fuss about? And why now? (Part 1 of 2)

July 7, 2014

(Part 2 of this blog is available here)

Are sit-stand desks new?

SitStandDeskEarly20thCenturyThere is evidence of implementations dating back over a century, but height-adjustable sit-stand desks as we now know them have been available from Scandinavian manufacturers for about 20 years. We have been using electronically-adjustable models throughout our office for over 10 years.

More recently, products manufactured in the Far East (but often marketed as Scandinavian or European designs) have brought the price down significantly. In 2000, a Danish-manufactured 1600mm x 800mm (63 x 31.5 inch) sit-stand desk retailed at £1200 + VAT. Today the UK retail price (before discounts) is less than £700 + VAT. There are also after-market adaptors for existing sitting desks (see Part 2 of this blog).

So is “getting up” a new thing?

Dynamic sitting, movement and changes of posture have been a mantra since before the birth of ergonomics as a discipline. However, the “sitting is bad for you” message is quite recent (but probably not as recent as people think).

The “Sitting Disease”

Type 2 DiabetesAs long ago as November 2007, the Daily Mail published this article in the UK headed “Sitting at a desk all day is as bad for health as smoking”. There were probably many similar articles at the time.

The basis of the research (from the University of Missouri-Columbia) was that prolonged sitting increased the likelihood of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and obesity. These outcomes drew the parallel with smoking (also a cause of these three disabling conditions) and this prompted the “sitting is the new smoking” catchphrase.

Recent publicity, in the UK especially, comes as a result of a Leicester study providing a meta-analysis of 18 studies and published in August 2012. This arrived at a similar conclusion.

Alongside this research, other evidence suggested that even regular exercise or gym workouts would be insufficient to counteract the damage being done by sedentary lifestyles amongst western office workers.

As a result of the publicity surrounding these findings, the catalogue of potential health woes apparently brought about by a sedentary lifestyle have been collectively dubbed the Sitting Disease.

Seeing the wood for the trees

There is no doubt that, properly implemented and used, sit-stand desks are healthy and beneficial to employees. They can increase calorie consumption, encourage movement, reduce sedentary postures and increase productivity.

But they may not!

Much of the recent purchase activity of sit-stand desks has been as a knee-jerk reaction to employee demand. In the US in particular, many retrofit sit-stand desk projects have proved harder to implement than expected. Blue chip employers are now installing successful sit-stand-only desking in new build projects but this is a very different situation from partial implementations in existing facilities.

Culture and training

In the same way that a well-designed chair will not help back problems unless the user is trained to set it up and adjust it, a sit-stand desk may just replace poor sitting postures with poor standing postures. It is also essential that users recognise the importance of mixing activities and remember not to stand or sit for too long at any one time. Taking the chair away and standing all day may solve some problems but will almost certainly create others.

It is therefore important to find a desk supplier who understands the cultural and psycho-social issues of using these products, rather than a retailer who can simply assemble it and plug it in.  It is also naïve to assume that the simple act of providing users with sit-stand desks will be the panacea for all posture issues, instantly eradicating the “Sitting Disease” and increasing productivity!

Users need to understand how to adjust the desk, why they should be doing so, how long they should use the different postures and what “a good set-up” looks and feels like. Otherwise there is a strong chance that the varied use will be abandoned and it will soon revert to an unnecessarily expensive sitting desk.

It is even possible to link the desk controls to the user’s computer and adopt a scientific approach to posture change. For example, SitStandCOACH is a software/hardware combination that prompts users to change posture at appropriate intervals (linked to activity and not just to time).

So what are my options?
What are my options?My next blog will explore product options and provide ideas for implementation, as well as offering some warnings about pitfalls. In the meantime, in no particular order, here are several research links relating to sit-stand workstations. I shall leave you to draw your own conclusions about the veracity of each item!

  • Useful blog article with several research links –
  • University of Leicester, 2012: Sitting for protracted periods increases the risk of diabetes, heart disease and death –
  • Ebara et al, 2008: Effects of adjustable sit-stand VDT workstations on workers’ musculoskeletal discomfort, alertness and performance –
  • University of Sydney/National Heart Foundation of Australia Case Study, 2013: Do sit-stand workstations reduce employees’ sitting time –  (further references in the back of this publication)
  • Choi, 2010: Ergonomic Evaluation of Electrically Adjustable Table in VDU Work –
  • Grunseit et al, 2013: “Thinking on your feet”: A qualitative evaluation of sit-stand desks in an Australian workplace –
  • Hedge, 2004: Effects of an electrically height-adjustable work surface on self-assessed musculo-skeletal discomfort and productivity in computer workers –
  • American Institute for Cancer Research, 2011: Getting Up From Your Desk Can Put the “Breaks” on Cancer –
  • Extensive BBC Article, April 2014:

(Part 2 of this blog is available here)

Office Chair Features & Benefits

January 7, 2014

Features & BenefitsI have been thinking about the best way for an individual to choose the optimum office chair and it occurs to me that it would be a good idea to start with a list of the features and benefits that are available in today’s products. I have therefore pulled together the contents of various documents we have been using for some years, then updated and consolidated them to create this list. I am sure there may be a few features I have omitted and many chair manufacturers will have their own claim to uniqueness but I think this gives a reasonable overview.

Please take a look at the list and comment, applaud or criticise it here. I shall be delighted to update or amend it in response to feedback.

To understand how to use this information, “How do I choose an office chair (for myself)?” provides a detailed action plan.

Compliance or Investment? Arguing the Case for Ergonomics Projects

May 29, 2013

[This article was first published in Health & Safety Matters magazine, May 2013]

Cafe working

Cafe working

It seems to me there are two ways of thinking about the funding of workplace ergonomics and it is essential to identify which of these two modes applies to your employer (or client). Unless you do so, you may be wasting time and energy by approaching issues the wrong way.

“Compliance Mode” applies to organisations that accept their obligations but are not motivated to spend beyond the demands of minimum compliance.  They will do what they must in order to remain within the law but regard these commitments simply as unavoidable costs. And the way we all respond to costs is to make every effort to minimise them.

By contrast, “Investment Mode” applies to organisations which regard ergonomics (probably alongside health and wellbeing) programmes as investments in the business.  Their approach recognises that investing in the education, comfort, posture, health and fitness of the workforce will result in improved productivity to the benefit of the business as a whole.  Their focus will be to identify the return on that investment.

Sit-stand working

Sit-stand working

Clearly, these two modes are not absolutes and commercial pressures and available resources will also impact how an employer responds to any individual project.  However, my experience is that there will be an overriding culture within an organisation that will generally lean in one of these two directions which are, by definition, divergent views.

It is equally important to understand whether employees in the business actually share the organisational culture as it is publicly portrayed. If employees sneer at corporate initiative posters or make comments such as “they say that but …” about declared organisational intentions, there is clearly misalignment.  Other tell-tale signs of disparity in conversations with managers are expressions like “I hear what you’re saying but…” or references to “expectation management”.

“Engagement” is a word that frequently appears in discussions about getting buy-in for ergonomics, health & safety or wellbeing programmes and the level of staff engagement is frequently a good indicator about the organisational culture.  If personnel genuinely believe that their employer cares about their wellbeing, they probably work for an “Investment Mode” employer.

Dealing with Compliance Mode employers is a simple, if unfulfilling, process.  Conversations will be short-term by nature and the focus is on price.  Such organisations are not interested in medium-term returns and will, typically, buy a cheaper product even if it will have a disproportionately short life expectancy. Personnel in such organisations frequently do not see their own future in the business as long-term and, as such, are not concerned about considering the impact of a project too far into the future.

Hot desking

Hot desking

Investment Mode organisations are much more rewarding to work with but project acceptance should still not be taken for granted.  It is important to be properly prepared and ensure proposals are suitably focussed. Here are some ideas to achieve success:

  • Do your research. Ensure that you understand the objectives of the project and ensure your proposal matches them.  For example, if you are trying to improve the ergonomics of home-workers, is the question about the furniture or laptop use or the need to carry equipment around? (It’s probably all three!).  Remote working also raises major communication and training issues so it is important, not just to provide the right equipment, but to demonstrate how training and monitoring can be implemented.
  • Do not ignore the ancillary considerations. How important is the look of the product?  If the project relates to a new, state-of-the-art building, how will your proposal fit into the surroundings.  Often the adjustability and personalisation espoused by ergonomics may conflict with the architect’s vision.  All those individually set electric sit-stand desks will play havoc with the clean lines of the new open-plan design!
  • Are there other areas of the business where cost savings could be made as a result of this project?  For instance, buying laptop stands with a keyboard and mouse may save the purchase of docking stations and/or extension monitors.
  • Are there other ongoing projects or issues that this project would support.  What are the priorities of the Occupational Health or Wellbeing teams at the moment?  Speak to these departments as well as HR and IT in case there are mutual benefits.
  • Are there any other current initiatives that can be aligned to the project brief?  Is absenteeism, presenteeism or employee fitness a current focus?  How might your project help to improve these?
  • Are there any broader corporate objectives that you can include in your proposal? For example, what is the organisation’s position on sustainability?  How does it implement its CSR policies?  Often products promoted by ergonomics companies have a good environmental story that will align strongly with the corporate philosophy of an Investment Mode employer.

Finally, ensure you present a coherent financial case.  Remember that it’s the return on the investment that will ultimately win the argument.

Active desks – a step too far?

April 10, 2013

LakeDistrictViewApple crumble & custard. Morecambe & Wise. Long walks & the Lake District. Some combinations just work well together.

Other pairings may be worthy individually but less so when united. I would put driving & texting, Rachel & Joey, walking & typing, and cycling & mousing into the latter category.

Treadmill DeskRecent discussions and headline-grabbing stories about the adverse effects of long-term sitting have brought “active desks” back into the limelight. (Active desks provide the user with facilities to walk, cycle or even use a recumbent elliptical trainer when working at an appropriate height desk). I first saw these at an exhibition in the US several years ago and, despite the plausible sales pitch, I was sceptical from the outset.

My issue with these products is that, like physio balls and kneeling chairs before them, their application in the workplace can be misunderstood and, as a result, misapplied.

Walking and other forms of exercise are obviously “a good thing” but how can you combine this effectively with computer work (which is what the majority of us do at our desk most of the time)?

Passive audio/video activities (webinars, podcasts) are viable with an active workstation – after all, we can watch TV whilst exercising  in the gym. By contrast, typing and mousing require a level of accuracy best accomplished when the upper body is stationary. Productivity will therefore decline significantly. For example, users report dramatic increases in typing errors.

Like physio balls, which are highly effective in their proper context (to strengthen core stability muscles through a proper exercise programme), use in the workplace can be counter-productive or even injury-inducing.

In my view, traditional sit-stand workstations, in combination with other exercise methods, are a better solution (and not just because we sell them!). Not only are they cheaper, they also give the user the opportunity to enjoy a mix of sitting and standing activities throughout the day.  This should always be combined with training and education about other simple activities like stretching breaks, walking meetings, using the stairs, parking at the opposite end of the car park and the many other ways that individuals can improve their health and their productivity without any cost to themselves or their employer.

Car ParkPerhaps my subject should be “Active desks – What’s the point?”

I hope I can look forward to some heated debate about this topic – either online or in person!

20 Years of DSE Assessments

January 8, 2013

ImageIt is 20 years since the Health & Safety “Six Pack” was launched. As we enter the third decade of DSE assessments and management, I have been reflecting on that part of the Six Pack with which I have been most involved: the Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992 – and how people have responded to it.

There have been enormous changes since January 1993, not just in the computers people use but in the nature of work and workplaces.

The most conspicuous change is obviously in the technology. When the Regulations first came into force, a “portable computer” weighed about the same as a sack of coal and, if not exclusively mains-powered, had a battery life equivalent to a teenager’s attention span. The 2002 amendments to the Regulations recognised the challenges created by laptop technology advances.  However, they did not in any way anticipate the dramatic changes to work habits and data access that would come about through wi-fi, cloud computing, tablets and smartphones.

Just when we thought we had a grip on the physical answers to musculo-skeletal problems for computer users, along comes “iPad shoulder” and “smartphone finger”!

Equally important (especially right now) are the issues of Smart Working, stress at work (something we hardly considered in the nineties) and changing attitudes to work amongst those now entering the workforce.

Rather than contemplate the evolution of approaches to the Regulations, it is probably easier to consider the fundamental differences (as I see them) in our thinking about office ergonomics between when they started and what we do now. Here are some thoughts:

  • 20 years ago, most people could barely spell ergonomics, let alone understand what it meant. Today, most people have a view about what it is but this is very often partial or even skewed. “It’s about chairs” is a common theme but a worrying number of those with a view seem to have learned what they know from product brochures or assumptions drawn from other experiences.
  • The word “ergonomic” seems to have been hijacked by marketing people and used as a generic adjective to describe just about anything. Where a justification for its use is provided, the justification may not be particularly robust.
  • InputDevicesThe constant flow of new computer input devices seems to be unending. As Logitech, Microsoft, and now even Apple, introduce more products claiming better ergonomics benefits, new specialist designers and manufacturers continue to appear and several of these make claims negating the benefits claimed for other products! Again, the manufacturer’s marketing budget (rather than ergonomics benefits) often seems to be the driving force in the popularity of such products.
  • Workplace stress is very much more of a topic.  Since the economy changed in 2008, presenteeism has been come a real issue. We find there is a stress element to growing numbers of the musculo-skeletal issues we are asked to address and it is essential that these problems are addressed in a holistic manner.
  • The disparity between pro-active organisations and those who regard every personnel welfare issue as a cost to be minimised (or avoided) is probably larger than it ever was. Indeed, the dynamic, investing employers are becoming more and more sophisticated whilst others, especially in the current economic climate, slip further behind.

As I have started to think about this, it becomes clear that there is much more to say but this is more than enough for one article! I have made notes for at least two more pieces that will spin out of this. As usual, I make no claims to being comprehensive in my analysis and welcome comments, thoughts or constructive arguments!

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