Office Chairs: Worth the Investment

We spend a lot of time sitting. One study showed that the average worker spends about 5 hours and 41 minutes each day at their desks. Some of us spend even more time sitting at our jobs.

Millions of Americans lose time at work each year because of back pain, and that number’s growing. The Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS) shows that ergonomics-related injuries cost more lost employee time and productivity than other workplace illnesses and injuries.

While getting up and moving around certainly can help alleviate some of these symptoms, so can investing in a well-made, comfortable office chair. Office chairs have a quite a history, too. And the early models weren’t the most comfortable — or practical. But they’ve come a long way from their humble, cobbled-together beginnings.

Office Chairs Through History

Historians credit Charles Darwin with building one of the earliest known office chairs in the early 1840s. He added wheels to the bottom so he could navigate his workspace and access his specimens more easily.

Inventor Thomas Warren originated the Centripetal Office Chairs which the American Chair Company showcased at London’s 1851 Great Exhibition. Manufactured from iron and upholstered in velvet, the chair featured many characteristics modern chairs include today: castors and a seat that swiveled and tilted.

By the early 1900s, office chairs aligned more with architectural trends than the wide range of human bodies. Frank Lloyd Wright’s office chair, which he created specifically for the Larkin Building that he designed in 1904, looked cool. But its aesthetics compromised any potential comfort. The three-legged chairs were so top heavy that Larkin Company president Harry Larkin dubbed them the “suicide chair.”

After World War II, when ergonomic research influenced tank and airplane cockpits office chair began to evolve into the chair we recognize today. However, designers still prioritized aesthetics over ergonomics.

That prioritization began to change, however, as office workers began to suffer from a condition identified by American surgeon George Phalen as carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS).

Many factors – including some chronic nerve illnesses, fractures, or arthritis — can cause CTS. So can the work environment, including situations that require repetitive motion over time, like using a keyboard or mouse. Sitting with poor posture doesn’t help, either. And let’s face it — those early chairs weren’t exactly designed to position people’s bodies for optimum health and comfort.

Chair manufacturers and designers began to more seriously consider what features would help people sit comfortably and correctly, enabling them to do their jobs without experiencing pain resulting from improper body position.

While ergonomics began to rise in popularity in the mid-20th century, the concept dates back thousands of years.

Importance of Ergonomics

The word “ergonomics” derives from the Greek words “ergon” or work and “nomos” or natural laws. It’s come to define the science that studies how to design and arrange tools and things people use so that everyone can interact more safely and efficiently.

Archeologists studying the Ancient Greek civilization of 400 BCE have found paintings and drawings of chairs with contoured back rests similar to what we see today. Hippocrates, who lived between 460 BCE and 375 BCE shared his thoughts on how to design a surgeon’s workspaces and how to most effectively arrange his tools. 

Published in the 1700s, Bernadino Ramazzini’s De Morbis Artificum (Diseases of Workers) detailed a range of work-related injuries exacerbated by his patients’ environments and occupations. The injuries he discussed included writer’s cramp, telegrapher’s wrist, housemaid’s knee, and weaver’s bottom.

Fredrick Winslow Taylor wanted to improve 1890s workplace efficiency. He developed scientific management using methods to analyze workflow and measure units of work and time. One of his famous studies evaluated the process of coal shoveling.  Taylor identified 21.5 pounds as the most effective load and designed shovels of different sizes capable of holding that weight. His approach — to shrink shovels’ sizes and weights — increased productivity and reduced work-related injuries.

Fast-forward to the mid-1970s, where computers were rare and doctors dismissed (or didn’t understand) back, shoulder, elbow, and wrist pain. The study of ergonomics had grown and begun to influence processes — and furniture, including office chairs.

Ergonomics’ Influence on Office Chairs

In 1970, President Richard Nixon signed into law the Occupational Safety and Health Administration Act (OSHA). The law protected workers by requiring companies to provide safe work environments and leveraging hefty fines for companies that ignored safety.

Ergonomics became a hot topic in the 1990s for OSHA. The organization has issued a variety of guidelines, recommendations, and best practices to address ergonomics.

OSHA created a set of guidelines to consider when manufacturing office chairs. Those recommendations included:

  • Ensuring easy adjustability
  • Using a sturdy, five-legged base with solid chair casters
  • The ability to swivel 360 degrees
  • Include a minimum range of 16 inches for seat height
  • Offer a seat pan tilt with a minimum 5-degree adjustable range forward and back

Introducing the Ergon Chair

Bill Stumpf, a designer for Herman Miller, created the Ergon Chair in 1976, which he designed specifically to provide comfortable, body-friendly seating that also supported physical health.

After conducting several years of research, Stumpf redefined the meaning of comfort. He defined the following criteria for the most effective — and ergonomic — office chair.

  • A chair should be perceived as comfortable before, during, and after sitting upon it. Comfort is as much a matter of the mind as of the body.
  • A chair should enhance the appearance of the person sitting on it.
  • While allowing postural movement, the chair should also embrace the body.
  • The chair should provide correct support for the sacrum and lumbar region of the spine.
  • The chair should provide a simple means for height and angular adjustments. A chair should be friendly to all body parts that touch it.

Health Benefits of Work-Friendly Chairs

Regardless of whether you’re buying a chair with a $1000+ price tag or looking for a model on a budget, looking for chairs specifically designed to support parts of your body — specifically your spine — that get stressed while working. An unhappy spine potentially leads to many issues with other body parts.

Look for a chair that:

  • Supports your posture with adjustable height. Your knees should be angled 90° to the floor and parallel to your hips.
  • Allows you to adjust whatever you need to fit your individual needs so you’re completely comfortable.
  • Has a headrest to support your head, which will reduce the risk of neck problems.
  • Offers a good seat depth to reduce pressure on your hips and support your bottom. Ideally, that depth should measure between 2 and 4 inches from the back of your knees.
  • Swivels and allows you complete mobility so you don’t have to stretch, extend, or strain yourself to reach different parts of your workspace.

If you’re outfitting a new office, ready for an upgrade, or suspect your chairs might be contributing to a few new aches and pains, the members of CREA United can help. Talk to our leaders in the Office and Corporate groups for recommendations.

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