The bottom line

For desk-bound workers, the office chair is parking place for a terrifying amount of their lives. Nicky Churchill looks at some factors to consider before selecting a seat.

There is little dispute that the most important piece of furniture in the modern office is the task chair. You may look at your computer screen a lot of the time, pick up the telephone, or go to the photocopier, but it is the chair that is your home for more-or-less eight hours a day.

The office chair has had a lot of attention over the past few years, primarily as a response to the recent EC Directive relating to the use of VDU equipment. Clients have become more wary of workplace ailments and more conscious of ergonomics, while manufacturers are introducing all-singing all-dancing chairs which, in many cases, only serve to confuse the buyer.

There are currently about 140 office chair manufacturers active in the UK alone, each producing a number of ranges. These vary from the “catalogue” chairs to “designer” chairs and it is a very competitive market. But according to independent furniture specialist Maggie Hall, the design and engineering of the office chair hasn’t changed much lately. In fact, it bothers her that Aeron, designed by Bill Stumpf and Don Chadwick for Herman Miller, is the one that everybody still quotes as the ultimate product. And it’s over three years old.

Instead of new development, Hall believes that the players at the lower end of the market are trying to mimic the top end designs, while the top end are bringing in lower priced offerings in an attempt to broaden their client base.

So, with all this competition around, how does a client or specifier choose a range of task seating? We asked Hall what needs to be taken into account and what particular attributes they should be looking for.

How do you Choose

Three years ago, Hall produced the User’s Guide to Office Seating, the result of intensive research and analysis of the seating industry. Basic criteria and advice on standards and ergonomics is presented in a readable format together with more in-depth information on certain chair ranges, detailing issues such as cost, availability, and compliance with standards. It is updated annually.

First and foremost, Hall suggests that you should try to work out what you want your ideal chair to do. “After all,” she says “it is about the only product in the office that doesn’t just sit there.” Having done that, draw up a checklist of core functional criteria to help identify the first selection of product. She cites two factors that the office seating market immediately presents to help in this selection:

is a separate back-height adjustment required?

would a chair with a positively forward-tilting seat be beneficial, (particularly for those undertaking a lot of computer work)?

Add to this some idea of cost, and you can immediately identify the real options.

Hall says that, generally, a well-proportioned chair which relies less rather than more on the user to adjust, is a sensible solution. After all, the greater number of controls and mechanisms, the more training you will have to give your staff.

What to look for

Having whittled down the options using these criteria, chances are you will still be left with too great a choice. The next stage is a more detailed checklist of considerations, some quantitative and some qualitative… and, of course, there are those that will depend on the policy of the particular client company.

Those criteria that can be quantified include test results against relevant legislation, key dimensions of the office chair, service support and maintenance, background of the product and ethical policies of the manufacturer.

Qualitative issues relate to the attributes of the product and include ergonomic criteria, user tests, and choice of fabrics and finishes.

Legislation

There are various British Standards which relate to office seating, and, although not all are mandatory, they should all be considered:

BS 4875 Performance

BS 5459 Strength and stability

BS 7179 part 5 Ergonomics

BS 5940 part 1 Design and dimension

BS 5852 Flammability

BS 5750 Quality assurance

DIN 4551 German standard which essentially covers the above

Dimensions

Recommended measurements for task chairs are referred to in both British Standards (BS 7179, BS 5940 part 1) and Health & Safety Executive guidance documents. Key ones to check for compliance are: height, width and angle of backrest; depth, width and height of seat; height, length and set-back of arm.

Service

The on-going service and support you get from the supplier is equally important when choosing the product. From time to time, repairs may be required and parts may need to be replaced. You need to be assured that these can be carried out in-house, or that the supplier will respond quickly and efficiently. What is the call out time? How long will it take the factory to repair the chair? And, will they provide you with a loan in the interim?

Training programmes for staff should also be a consideration, such as teaching them to use the individual controls to the best advantage and how to assume the correct sitting position.

Background of the product

Issues which it can be helpful to be aware of include the length of time the product has been on the market, its track record (like previous installations and quantities sold), country of origin and lead time for orders.

Ethical issues

The company’s policy on Green issues in relation to the business generally, as well as the materials and manufacturing methods can affect your choice.

Ergonomics

Ergonomic guidelines for office seating can be found in BS 7179 part 5, BS 5940 part 1, HSE: Seating at Work, and HSE: Statutory Instruments 1992 no 2792. Key ergonomic features are a firm foam seat, a sloping front edge, adjustable seat-height, lumbar support, swivel base with five or more castors, and adjustable back-rake.

User tests

If your order is likely to be a large one, it is beneficial to carry out certain user tests. Remember, only discomfort can be measured, not comfort.

Questions to ask might include:

How comfortable do you find the seat pad and the back pad?

How well did the chair support you?

Are you happy about the chair’s proportions?

Are arm-rests in the correct position?

How easy was it to find the controls and are they easy to use?

Which adjustments did you need to use most frequently?

If there was an option of a lock or “free float” seat position, which did you use?

If there was an option of forward tilt or level setting, which did you use?

Fabrics and finishes

There are many manufacturers that would have you believe that choosing an office chair is all about the aesthetics and styling. And, aesthetically, there will be many choices available to you, including a number of models within the range, choice of fabrics and finishes, and whether you can specify your own covering.

These are all important in their own right if you have to choose between two products, it may well come down to personal choice.

However, the final word on office chairs belongs to Maggie Hall, who says “remember that all you see is the back”.

The Users’ Guide to Office Seating is published by Stockwell Reports

Maggie Hall Furniture Specialists can be contacted on: Tel: 0171-733 5401

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