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When Office Chairs Attack: How to Create an Injury-Free Desk Setup

By Nicole Bode | November 18, 2010 11:38am

By Nicole Bode

DNAinfo Senior Editor

MANHATTAN — When our office relocated last week, I tagged five things for the movers to take to the new space: three cardboard boxes, my computer, and my 2 ½ foot tall green exercise ball. I did not tag my office chair.

I'd pretty much abandoned the chair in favor of the ball a few months back after trying out every unclaimed seat in the office and turning into a corporate Goldilocks, "This one is too low. This one is too high. This one slants slightly to the left."

My co-workers teased me about sitting on the ball, but so what? It worked for me. But was it good for me?

I try to be a health-conscious cubicle dweller. I try to mitigate all the ways offices can be hazardous to your health, as listed by the city's Health Department.

I try to look away frequently from my computer screen, to avoid hurting my eyes.

I straighten out my keyboard and mouse to head off carpal tunnel syndrome.

I keep meaning to get a headset so I don’t have to tuck my telephone receiver between my ear and my shoulder, which inevitably gives me neck stiffness and jaw pain.

And, I told myself, I’m not screwing up my back by sitting in a bad chair.

Then I spoke to ergonomics expert Jonathan Puleio, director of consulting for Humanscale, a Chelsea-based company that designs and sells ergonomic office equipment.

Suddenly, my self-righteous tone deflated as fast as an exercise ball with a hole in it.

"The exercise ball companies will tell you that it’s the best thing ever, but the ergonomics community doesn’t show that," said Puleio, whose company has offices around the world in which consultants design healthy workstations and teach workers how to align their office gear to prevent injury.

"These things come out and they’re trendy, they’re a fad," he added. "What’s beneficial in a gym is not necessarily what’s beneficial over the course of a person’s career, eight to 10 hours a day, in front of a computer. At this point, there’s not a lot of research that shows that it’s beneficial."

Puleio compared the experience of trying to stay upright on an exercise ball in an office for an entire workday to bench pressing at the gym for up to 10 hours at a time.

"At some point, the muscle fiber begins to break down," he said.

One upshot of using the exercise ball is to restrict it to short stints, alternating with a chair with back support, he said.

But what if that chair with back support is tilted or uncomfortable? I asked. Isn’t that worse than any damage I could do with the ball?

Puleio admitted to being stumped by my tilted chair theory, saying he hadn’t heard of that particular complaint.

But he validated my experience of discomfort at my desk, saying that most desks and chairs are designed around a 6'4" male, leaving the vast majority of office workers in a desk that’s too tall for them, he said.

All that repetitive stretching to reach the keyboard or phone or computer can trigger wrist and shoulder stress and back pain more than even a bad chair can, he said.

So, chairs can be bad, but exercise balls can be worse. And my desk is probably too big for me. Now what?

Not to worry, Puleio said, there’s plenty of steps you can take that don’t require hiring an ergonomics consultant.

First, place your monitor and keyboard so they are each straight ahead of you. Turning your body or your head for the entire day, no matter how slight, can have a detrimental effect.

If your monitor is higher than your eye line, lower it, he said, since the natural posture of the head is tilted down by 15 degrees.

Ditch the wrist rest for your keyboard, he said, since pressure directly on the wrist can be an express train to carpal tunnel. Palm rests, on the other hand, are a great way to give your wrists a break, he said. So is lowering the back flaps on your keyboard so you can keep your wrists straight.

Lastly, check your chair for mobility, and raise it if you can, so your knees are bent at a 90 degree angle to the floor. Unlock the back support so it moves slightly when you lean back to help distribute your weight.

"Ergonomics is essentially about fitting the job to the worker. Most computer users are doing just the opposite," he said. "They’re conforming their bodies to the work surface."

And just in case I might be tempted to start rigging up any other makeshift office furniture, Puleio reminded me that sometimes, it's better to do your homework.

"Giving people ergonomic equipment is not really a solution if the people don’t know how to use it," he said. "At the end of the day, if we are going to make a change, the employees have to break habits. Those tools aren’t going to use themselves."