All “ergonomic” products have some drawbacks or potential for misuse. The information in the Back Designs Knowledge Base provides some guidelines for specifying ergonomic office products, and reviews some of the pros and cons associated with their use.

No one is average

One of the key premises of ergonomics is that people differ along a wide range of many dimensions. People come in different sizes and shapes. People also differ in their preferences and their style of work. Workplace designs should account for these important individual differences.

Just as every worker is a unique individual, office situations differ. Also, changes in VDT technology, scientific knowledge, or accepted ergonomics solutions may bring revisions to these guidelines. When something in the work changes, everything may change from an ergonomics point of view. There are many ways in which offices can differ, so it is impossible to anticipate every potential problem or to propose every viable solution.

Too often, office ergonomics is solely equated with adjustable furniture and equipment. Office ergonomics also includes other equally important factors such as such as temperature, lighting, sound levels, work procedures, work habits, and psychological and social aspects. It is critical that furniture not be used as a solution for conditions for which they were not designed.

National standard

Nationally-accepted ergonomic standards are published by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and The Human Factors Society, Inc, the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturer's Association (BIFMA), and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). These standards contain requirements and recommendations for keyboards, tables, chairs, VDT components, lighting and noise from experts in these areas.

These standards establish anthropometric minimums for adjustable workstations and seating, but do not delineate specific functional workstation and seating requirements for a particular individual. Nor do the standards take into account the latest developments in product design and research. In the USA, these standards are voluntary, not mandated by law.

Standards measurement ranges are typically based on the population of users in the range between the 5th percentile female and the 95th percentile male body dimensions.

Basis for recommendations

Since ergonomics is still a relatively young discipline, its principles are somewhat more tentative than those of older fields. Unfortunately, there is little high-quality research that can be brought to bear on certain design issues. Therefore, only some ergonomic issues can be fully supported by scientific evidence. Rather than simply ignoring issues about which little is known in particular, we conservatively apply general human factors and design principles in these cases. Back Designs guidelines are correspondingly considered to be provisional, and will be periodically revised to reflect the state of the art in this rapidly evolving field.

Back Designs' design recommendations are based both on the best available information from the available standards, on the ergonomics literature, on expert review, and, most importantly, on our "hands-on" experience with thousands of our customers and clients over the past 20 years.

Retrofits and last minute "band-aids" are can be costly

Ergonomics concepts should be incorporated as early in the design process as possible. An investment in flexible and versatile furniture, seating, and office equipment may cost more initially, but can pay off in the long run. A buyer must consider future growth requirements to ensure that organizational changes do not render a solution obsolete before a reasonable period of time has elapsed.

General design requirements

Much remains to be discovered about healthy and effective working postures, and there are too many differences in body dimensions, individual physical conditions and preferences, and tasks to allow us to have predetermined “best” designs. It is extremely important to try out a possible design solution before committing to it on a large scale.

Sound ergonomic design of a workstation depends on the specific tasks the worker needs to accomplish and on the physical characteristics of the worker. What is considered the correct ergonomic design in one situation might not necessarily be so in another. There are no formulas that can be applied to obtain ready-made answers.

Unfortunately, it is very easy to look at only one side of the issues. For instance, workstation designs often fail to take into account mixed tasks where computer work and paper work are combined. In this case, designing the work station to support computer work only, may neglect or cause more serious problems associated with paper work. All elements of the task, the office environment, and the worker should be considered as a unit when evaluating or designing workstations.

Comfortable working postures should be supported, including changes in posture during work. Depending upon the task, the “correct” posture for task may be “incorrect” for another. In addition, theoretical models of “ideal” postures are not always practical, nor are they universally healthy. A posture that reduces stress on one body structure may at the same time increase stress on another body structure. Furniture should support a variety of acceptable postures.

Anthropometry, which is the name given to the measurement of the body’s dimensions, is also important. No single set of workstation dimensions can be expected to fit all people. It is reasonable to expect that a person who is 6’5” tall will not be comfortable in a workstation designed for a 5’ person and vice versa. In addition, one cannot assume that two people of the same height will be comfortable at the same work station. Studies show that one in three people have one or more body dimensions that are smaller or larger than the standard anthropometric ranges between the 5th and 95th percentiles. Such differences in body proportion (for example, longer torso and shorter arms) will affect workable work station layouts and heights.

The above factors are interrelated. For instance, if a task requires prolonged work sessions at a workstation, such as data entry or directory assistance operators, then supporting the body increases in importance. A supervisor who only stays at his or her workstation for brief periods of time might not require so much postural support but might require a workstation and chair designed for quick and unobstructed entry and exit.