The importance of mobility

The human body is far from happy to sit still all the time! It is designed for movement and soon begins to make this quite clear. It protests with stiff joints, pain in the back, shoulders and hips. And yet we are forced to sit in front of computers and control panels since our jobs have become automated. But we also sit more at home too: we do our shopping via the Internet and communicate by e-mail – we don’t even have to go as far as the nearest letterbox. Of course, a visit to the gym or a training session goes a long way to compensate for a sedentary lifestyle, but do we have enough time – and energy – for them?

When the ergonomists (Greek. ergon = work and nomia = knowledge) first turned their attention to the production sector some fifty years ago, their interest focused on tools and monotonous movements in heavy work processes. In offices, they initially looked at seating curves, the tilt of backrests, elbow and neck angles etc.

Only in the 1990s with the advent of computers in every workplace did office employees become an interesting object of study. And now, fifteen years later, the key issue is mobility. At any rate that’s what Peter van Scheijndel thinks:

“More and more people work in offices, but more office work is also done at home. People are becoming less and less mobile. The sedentary lifestyle has become a real health problem. So it’s important for furniture to encourage mobility. Peter van Scheijndel is an ergonomist and partowner of VHP Ergonomics, a Dutch company with about 25 employees that advice, design and conducts ergonomic research. He notes that Scandinavia is, together with the Netherlands, at the forefront of developing office furniture of ergonomic design.

It’s a major challenge to satisfy all categories of people with one and the same chair. But considerable success has already been achieved in doing this. Office chairs are becoming more and more adjustable. But Van Scheijndel feels that there’s a major problem. The refinements are not used: 80 percent of users ignore – or fail to understand – the full potential of a chair.

“If office staff were to use furniture more effectively, there would be fewer occupational injuries and a better work environment, fewer days off sick and greater profitability for the companies as a result.

Today, we often hear people discussing the respective virtues of the FreeFloat and Synchron settings in office chairs. In brief: in the synchron position, the backrest and seat follow each other automatically. The angle between them follows your movements and changes freely and flexibly when you lean back in your chair, for example. This means that your hip joint has to move, which is good from a health perspective. It would be even better if the seat could also have some scope for swaying freely. It can do this in the FreeFloat setting. Your hips, thighs and back then move around even more in the chair. Some people think this feels a bit wobbly, and most need a while to get used to it.” What does Peter van Scheijndel think of the new Kinnarps 9000 series?

“The armrest has been improved. And all the adjustment controls are clearly visible. That’s important. The adjustment options are used less if they cannot be seen. The core question from an ergonomic viewpoint is to induce the user to adjust his chair.”

Desks of adjustable height have so far been more usual in Scandinavia than in other parts of Europe. What does the ergonomist from The Hague think of them?

“We must try to combat sedentary behaviour. People who alternately stand and sit during their work move around at least a little during the day. Ergonomic studies show that people continuously try to change their position when sitting. A heightadjustable desk can give scope to this obvious need to move around.”

In other words, mobility is indeed of the essence.

Finally, Peter van Scheijndel points out that ergonomics applied to office furniture is not merely a matter of comfort but should cover the total life cycle. Instead of merely focusing on the end-user’s ergonomics, one should also think about how the furniture affects those who manufacture and assemble it. As well as the cleaners and those who transport it to the office.

“Kinnarps new desks are reputed to weigh a third of their predecessors. That’s just fantastic. These days it’s quite common to move office at least every other year, so weight matters a lot. Not least in purely ergonomic terms.”