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.

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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