The ROI of ergonomic interiors

December 15, 2010
by Deanna Rosolen

PURCHASINGB2B MAGAZINE, OCTOBER 2010: The problem in this particular situation, explains Diane Stinson, was that she got the call after the fact. Stinson is a Canadian Certified Professional Ergonomist based in Calgary.

The call came from a company that had retrofitted its office with ergonomically designed office furniture. Most of it was already installed when Stinson was called in to take a look.

“I went in and they had some workstations already set up. The first thing I did was check the range of adjustability [on the furniture],” says Stinson. “The bottom end of the range was higher than I would recommend. And the top end of the range was way lower than what I would recommend.”

In other words, those employees whose body dimensions fall outside of that top range of adjustability, for example, would be reaching down to use their keyboards, a situation likely to create a risk factor for injuries. And a situation not likely to yield the return on investment the company was hoping for.

Stinson can cite far too many other examples of well-meaning employers who set out to create a functional environment for their staff only to have furniture that doesn’t really work.

Purchasers who want to ensure they’re making the best purchasing choice and want the best return have to do their research. Ergonomics is a complicated science, taking into account a person’s body dimensions, his or her capabilities, main tasks, the work environment, etc.

As Linda Hayes, director of merchandising interiors for Grand & Toy, explains, purchasers “need to take a little step back in terms of really understanding ergonomics as a whole. It’s really about the whole interaction of the human body or the study of human movement within the workplace.”

Once the decision is made to retrofit an office with ergonomically designed furniture, purchasers have myriad options. Ergonomic furniture comes in a range of choices and price points.

But purchasers must bear in mind that in order for chairs, desks and monitors to work for a wider range of people, they need to look for “maximum adjustability,” says Dhananjai Borwanker, Hamilton, Ontario-based technical specialist with the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety.

“For instance, chairs should have height adjustment, a seat pan that’s able to tilt, a lumbar support that you can move depending on the height of the user, and arm supports that can move either higher or lower or even be removed,” says Borwanker.

Of course, there is going to be a price premium for a piece of furniture that accommodates these factors and comes with more springs and gadgets. But the return on investment comes in many forms, as well.

A 2003 study, “The Productivity Consequences of Two Ergonomic Interventions”, by the Michigan-based Upjohn Institute for Employment Research found that supplying an ergonomic chair with ergonomic training and educational interventions can pay for themselves “within nine working days. From the employer’s perspective, the benefits of the chair-with-training intervention were 25 times the size of the costs after 12 months.”

For purchasers, there are other ways to justify the investment. Hayes says it’s a matter of reviewing your WSIB claims, lost time, short- and long-term disability costs. “When employees have a more ergonomic workspace and environment, those costs tend to decline,” she adds.

Ergonomic furniture can also impact morale. Shelby Robinson, president of in Colorado, explains that “working in an office, for instance, can be hard on your body and be quite stressful.” The right furniture means employees are comfortable and have a sense of well being because they’re employer is “taking care of them.”

This sense of wellness can lead to less absenteeism, greater job satisfaction, less employee turnover—and for employers that means less time spent training new staff.

One other key for a successful adoption of ergonomic solutions—and to ensure your company sees the return it’s hoping for—is to train employees. Stinson says employees need to be involved in the process and need to understand what they’re getting and why. It’s not just a matter of showing them how the new furniture or equipment works, but showing them how it can work specifically for them.

“We’re looking at the bigger picture; it’s not just the furniture. We’re looking at the employees buying into this,” says Stinson. “If we don’t explain why the new furniture is there and help the employee use it correctly they can still have problems. The employee’s work practices and work behaviours are equally important as the furniture.”

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