How to Shop for an Ergonomic Task Chair

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By Diana Budds
Humanscale's Sacha Burn details what to consider when buying body-conscious seating.

We sat down with ergonomics expert Sacha Burn to ask how we can avoid cubicle-based back aches.

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“Look for five key adjustments. Some chairs have more; some have less," says Burn. "These five should accommodate 95% of the population: seat height, seat depth, backrest and lumbar support height, and armrest height.” Diffrient Smart chair by Niels Diffrient for Humanscale, from $1,310. Check out more smart furniture here.

Can you explain a little bit about your work and what you do? 

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“It’s crucial to think about seat pan depth—especially if you’re short," Burn says. "Look for at least two inches of clearance behind the back of knee when you’re sitting in the chair.” Mirra 2 chair by Studio 7.5 for Herman Miller, from $649.

Ergonomics is really the science of fitting the task to the user, rather than the user trying to fit themselves to their tools or their task. Part of my specific role is to be able to provide ergonomic design recommendations for the designed product. It’s about working with our clients and studying at the employee level to improve the fit between the environment and the user. But largely what we spend our time doing is reactively addressing ergonomics, perhaps after someone has developed discomfort or even an injury. We work to improve the fit between environment and that user to make sure that we’re reducing their risk of developing [further] discomfort and injury, improving their comfort but also in turn improving things like their productivity, their efficiency, their satisfaction, and their overall health.

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“Choose a seat with either an adjustable backrest height or lumbar support so the chair’s curve fits into the curve of a back like two pieces of a puzzle," Burn says. Collection Ciel! chair by Noé Duchaufour Lawrance for Tabisso, from $1,500. Check out another colorful customizable chair!

If you invest this much into creating an ergonomically correct workspace, are you really saving money down the line in these other costs?

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"You want to make sure that your feet aren't unsupported," Burn says. "If you do have the feet on the floor and your thighs aren’t parallel to the floor you could be compressing the circulation in the back of your leg. Adjusting the feet to the right height is crucial." Gesture chair by Steelcase Design Studio in collaboration with Glen Oliver Loew, $979.

One of my favorite studies was one that was actually published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. What the researches did was survey about 30,000 employees across many different industries and found that over half of them, almost 53% of them, reported some sort of discomfort. This specific study found that of those people who reported discomfort, they were losing about five productive hours a week to their discomfort. Taking longer to get started in the morning, having to leave early, maybe having to change their job tasks, sometimes even having to take breaks to complain to their co-workers about their discomfort. So we’re losing about five hours a week, but really this adds up to 30 or 40 working days every year, and if you take out weekends that’s almost two working months that we could be paying employees who are there but are not actually working. 

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"If you’re in a chair that has a foam or mesh back, you need to look for some level of adjustment for lumbar support to fit the curve of the chair to the curve of your back," Burn says. "Sometimes this can be done more passively where the chair automatically fits to you without you coming in to make the adjustment." Clarity chair by BMW Group DesignWorksUSA with Allsteel, from $750. For more foam fun...

What are the most common problems in a workspace from an ergonomic perspective? 

The number one challenge of most office space work environments is that standard desk height in the U.S. is set at about 29 and a half inches from the ground. The reason this is a problem is that we want the work environment to be set to fit the employee, and not the employee to fit their body to the work environment. 

Another challenge that we had is that growing up we had mothers and fathers and teachers who told us that we have to sit up straight for our posture, but really, what we know from ergonomic research these days is that sitting up straight and leaning forward puts an immense amount of pressure and stress on your body. It increases compression on your spinal disc, and it means that the muscles of the core and your lower back have to work all day long to hold you up. Even for someone who has abs of steel, those muscles aren’t going to be able to work that whole time without taking a break. The best thing to do in your office environment is to allow your back and your body to relax into the back of your chair—it reduces the pressure on your spine, and it reduces muscle activity in your back.

[There's also] the fact that there’s nothing to govern the word ergonomic—anyone can label any product ergonomic. Even a few years ago Taco Bell came out with quesadillas and they advertised as having an ergonomic grip. I don’t know how that works. 

So there is no formal oversight over companies labeling their products as ergonomic. 

Absolutely not. What we teach is that instead of reaching for the product labeled "ergonomic" but looking for the criteria that will fit the tools to the body.

What are some important desk accessories to have?

I’d say that first of all I would encourage not calling it an accessory, because it implies we don’t actually need it—but it’s really one of the most important parts of the work station. The whole goal of fitting the tools to the user are to accommodate two things, our hands and our eyes. So really whatever you’re typing on should lie in the hands in lap position. And whatever you’re looking at—your documents, your monitor, or your laptop screen—we call that the height of your eye. If you can do this and move all the tools close to your body, you’re not going to be overusing specific muscles and you can actually sit back and recline in your chair. One of the big messages is to relax, be comfortable at work. 

We advocate keyboard trays is because it allows your hands to work in your lap. It can change your posture so much more than a task chair can. You can give someone a kitchen stool, or you can give someone the most ergonomic chair in the world, but if they're working at a desk that’s too high for them, they’re going to be working in the same [bad] posture. But if you give someone a keyboard tray they can change the height, the depth, the angle of where their hands are they can move the tools according to their body and completely change their posture for the better. 

The other is to get your screen up to the level of your eye. The basic guideline is if you’re using a standard monitor, to set the top line of text at or just below the height of your eye. The reason is that as humans we naturally look down at about a negative 15 degree angle below the height of our eyes. And the reason this is important is you want your gaze to fall in the middle of the screen so your neck can stay neutral and relaxed and you don’t strain your neck. We recommend lowering the screen to match your neck line.