When to replace task chairs in the workplace

Current guidelines overlook the ongoing performance of ergonomic seating in the office
Friday, April 8, 2016
By Alison Heller-Ono

Despite recent trends toward promoting more standing in the workplace, average sitting times now exceed 7.7 hours per day in the workplace. Most employers do not yet have widespread capacity for sit-to-stand workstations. As a result, far more emphasis needs to be placed on selecting and the ongoing use of an ergonomic chair.

The ergonomic chair life cycle begins with conceptual design, materials used, includes the manufacturing process, the delivery and distribution, workplace use and ends with disposal. There is sufficient information around the design, manufacturing, distribution and disposal aspects of an ergonomic chair. Extensive research has enabled the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association (BIFMA), American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES) to identify guidelines for manufacturers, employers and consumers.

However, there is a gap in the guidelines regarding how to assess the ongoing performance of an ergonomic chair after it enters the workplace. Evaluating the use of an ergonomic chair from a quality and competency standpoint is a critical part of the chair’s lifecycle. It answers the question: How and when do office chairs need to be replaced in the workplace? Currently, there is no formal methodology to objectively assess these key indicators.

Understanding the risks

Once an ergonomic chair is purchased, it often remains in circulation far beyond its acceptable life cycle and warranty (three to 10 years, on average, depending on manufacturer). As a result, office workers continue to use chairs that are old, worn, outdated and inoperable. These often inadequate chairs present additional ergonomic, product liability and safety risk factors, such as musculoskeletal stress and strain that can lead to injuries and workers’ compensation claims.

Incompetent chairs may lack support due to cushion failure, poor frame design, have sinking or failed cylinders, or have inoperable mechanisms including poor caster quality. These factors contribute significantly to chair dissatisfaction, sitting discomfort and ultimately seated work injury claims. And in a 2012 study, the California Department of Industrial Relations pegged the cost of such claims at $41,000 per seated work injury.

In 2014, a major office supply store recalled a popular task chair, stating, “The mounting plate weld can break and separate the seat from the base of the chair, posing a fall hazard.” Of the more than 1.4 million of these task chairs that were sold, there were at least 153 reports of the seat plate weld cracking or breaking. The recall reported 25 cases of contusion, abrasions, and reports of injuries to the head, neck and a fractured back and hip which required medical attention. Unfortunately, many unsuspecting employees use failing chairs like these. The price of the chair was $40, but the risk and liability exponentially greater.

Conducting an assessment

Employers can minimize the risk of ergonomic chair failures by evaluating them at the time of purchase to establish inventory and a minimum of every three to five years thereafter, depending on warranty status. Routine assessments determine which chairs should remain in the workplace, be repaired or refurbished within the warranty period or replaced as a result of wear and tear. The proposed methodology that follows makes this a more objective decision, rather than relying on the subjective opinions of employees, thereby eliminating bias in chair replacement.

1. Assess the use (quality and competency) of an ergonomic chair in four categories:

  • Chair cushion/fabric quality,
  • Operational mechanics,
  • Chair comfort (as perceived by end user), and
  • Overall quality and competency.

2. Rate each category on a three-point scale of good, fair, or poor, with qualifiers, to determine the condition of the chair for ongoing use in the workplace.

3. Note the year of manufacturing or purchase year/delivery date, and whether the chair is used over one, two or three shifts.

Establishing an inventory

Assessing the use of an ergonomic chair does more than reduce the liability associated with seated work injuries and assure better comfort, quality, competency and ultimately improved productivity by office workers. Evaluating for competency creates an inventory of chairs that ultimately shows which chairs are performing well over time, offer the best fit, have a high degree of end user comfort to remain in operation for safe and productive work and whether they are worth keeping as part of the organization’s standard furniture inventory.

The inventory also allows the organization to prioritize which chairs should be repaired or replaced based on an objective assessment of the age of the chair, fabric/cushion quality, operational mechanics, end user comfort and overall value. This, in turn, allows facility and purchasing managers to anticipate the budget necessary to repair, refurbish or replace the selected chairs over time.

Replacing broken, failing and worn-out ergonomic chairs in a timely manner is an important part of their life cycle and a critical component of the ergonomics program that aims to prevent and manage seated work injuries more effectively.  When employers objectively assess ergonomic chairs for quality and competency, organizations can save thousands of dollars in risk management, claim avoidance and productivity improvement by keeping employees safe and comfortable throughout the seated work day.

Alison Heller-Ono, MSPT, CDA, CPDM, CIE and CPE, is a certified management consultant and president of Worksite International, Inc. Alison is a consulting professional ergonomist and disability expert helping employers use the science of ergonomics through the continuum of work health. Reach her at alisonh@worksiteinternational.com.

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