How do you monitor and assess the impact of add-ons in the office? Meghan Kress casts her eye over the recent office additions and asks if we can implement them safely.

In office ergonomics we like to encourage variation in posture, often saying “The next position is the best position.” At the same time, more recent media attention to the negative health effects of sedentary behavior or too much time seated has driven many employees to seek changes to their office workstation set-ups in order to move more while at work.

For many, this is a request for a sit-stand workstation, something that more and more employers are now able to accommodate. However, there are also a plethora of other products that may pique an office worker’s interest with the hope of improved health, wellness, or even productivity with oftentimes minimal investment.
As safety professionals, it is worth examining all potential costs and benefits of these items. This will help to establish sound corporate policies before items are requested by office workers, or before they simply start appearing in offices by employees who bring them in on their own.

Keeping your eye on the ball

Many years ago, inflatable exercise balls started showing up in offices as an alternative to an office chair. At around £10 a ball, this was often a self-funded “improvement” by an office worker thought to help their back, increase their core strength, burn more calories, etc. Limited research available on this topic shows that use of an exercise ball as a chair may ultimately cause detriments to comfort as the ball lacks back support and may cause uncomfortable soft tissue compression.

Policies against their use in an office setting are now widespread as trip, fall, and popping hazards are evident with this type of equipment. Employees tend to easily comply with policies against exercise ball use when they are told that exercise balls do not meet the stability and safety requirements that office chairs are subject to.

Is everyone on board?

Recent advertising for balance board type devices targets users of sit-stand workstation set-ups. Claims are made that use of a balance board can increase caloric expenditure while standing and also improve comfort. While these benefits may be purely anecdotal at this point, safety professionals must carefully weigh potential costs with these devices.

The potential fall hazard is of utmost concern as the device is purposefully designed to require additional balance. Further, the additional height a balance board adds may alter the way the sit-stand workstation accommodates a user. In other words, the user may be too high for their keyboard and mouse while standing on the balance board, as many types of popular sit-stand equipment that builds onto an existing desk surface is already limited in accommodating employees that are taller in stature.

Other considerations include the tensed posture that one may take while standing on a balance board for prolonged periods, and potential detriments to computer work.

If an office worker feels they need a balance board at their sit-stand desk in order to improve their standing comfort, other factors should be considered first. Oftentimes, the person may just be standing for too long and can be encouraged to spend more time seated in their chair. Other factors such as the fit of the workstation should also be examined, ensuring that the screen(s) and peripherals are adjusted to the appropriate height for that person’s anthropometry. If all these things check out OK, equipment such as a sturdy footrest designed for standing work may offer a more viable solution for improving standing comfort.

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Add-ons are not always the right fit for the office

Office workers may wish to utilise this type of equipment (exercise ball or balance board) in order to increase their fitness, whether that’s for caloric expenditure or strength. However, it can easily be argued that whatever benefit that person would achieve by using the uncomfortable ball or balance board while they work could be achieved, or likely surpassed, by a well-designed purposeful workout in the appropriate setting (i.e. in the gym or at home).

One other item of note that is coming into offices is a cycle or pedal exerciser that can be used underneath the desk. Different models at different price points are available and only some are designed with a low profile in mind to avoid hitting the knees underneath the desk.

These types of devices are typically only used for a few short periods during the workday rather than continuously while seated. While we still do not know the effect these devices may have on work capabilities, there are concerns about how using one of these would change the fit of the workstation to the end-user and ultimately the comfort at the workstation.

Introducing add-ons to the office

When any new type of add-on office equipment comes to light, we as safety professionals need to carefully evaluate these items to determine appropriate organisational policy. Having a set policy on specific equipment makes it easier for facilities personnel and upper management to enforce guidelines and ensure consistency across organisations, with the view to making offices both safe and comfortable.

Sometimes, answering a series of pointed questions can help with this process. Consider the following: Why do people want to use these items? Do they introduce unnecessary risk in the workplace? Do they counteract or congeal with other programmes such as ergonomics or wellness? Will everyone be able to use this product? What alternatives are available?

Workers want to have flexibility with the types of furniture they use in their workplaces for a variety of reasons, however we have to consider the wider picture for each addition. While we don’t want to stop workers from having that flexibility, we, as health and safety professionals, need to make sure that they are appropriate for such environments and are used with care.

Stand Up for Your Life

This article featured in our popular risk magazine, Cardinus Connect. You can download it at the link above.

You can find the author Meghan Kress on LinkedIn here.

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