Seat Work

Feb. 1, 2006
Schools and universities should factor in ergonomics when furnishing classrooms.

Educators and school designers place a high priority on creating facilities that enhance learning. That applies not only to how a school is built, but also to the materials and equipment used.

Just as acoustical treatments or well-placed windows and skylights can make a classroom more conducive to learning, so can the right furniture. Desks, tables and chairs that improve the educational environment can help students maintain the focus they need to succeed at school.

Yet in many schools, the desks and chairs in a classroom do not match the students that use them. The resulting discomfort and fatigue can prevent students from concentrating on their work and over time can lead to eye strain or injuries to legs, wrists and necks.

Painful change

One of the more obvious changes in U.S. classrooms compared with those of a generation ago is the prevalence of computers. Nearly every classroom in the nation has computers, and students are spending part of their day peering at a monitor and pecking on a keyboard.

The technological advances brought about by the computer revolution have brought many benefits to schools and universities, but they also have made familiar terms out of such maladies as carpal tunnel syndrome and repetitive stress injuries.

To address the health risks of prolonged computer use, schools and universities should understand the role that furniture can have in creating the right environment for using computers and other technology safely and comfortably.

“Don't use tables that were used for writing surfaces or holding lunch plates,” says the International Ergonomics Association's Ergonomics for Children and Educational Environments committee. “These table surfaces were designed to be used at a greater height from the floor than those used for computers.”

The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) recommends these steps to help provide young students with workspaces that enhance health, safety, productivity and comfort:

  • Have many sizes of furniture available, especially in middle schools, where children have a wide range of body sizes.

  • A rolled-up towel or a small pillow can be used to provide better lumbar support in seating.

  • A footrest or an old phone book or catalog can relieve discomfort for students whose seats are too high for their legs to reach the floor.

  • If there is less than 1 inch of space between a student's knees and the underside of a desk, use wooden blocks under the desk legs to add more room.

  • A chair should be compatible with the desk or table. A chair for a computer workstation should be adjustable for seat depth, height and angle; and for back height and lumbar support. It also should have armrests that adjust for height, width and angle.

Getting in position

For computer work areas, the AOTA recommends positioning the monitor so that the student's eye level is 2 to 3 inches lower than the top of the screen. The monitor should be adjustable for height and angle. It should be placed about an arm's length away from the student and positioned to avoid screen glare.

The workspace should have an articulating keyboard and mouse tray that allows for negative tilt.

“The ideal,” says North Carolina State University's Environmental Health and Public Safety Center, “is for the user to be able to sit at the workstation with the keyboard in place and be able to easily maintain a 90- to 100-degree elbow angel and straight wrists while typing.”

In addition to computer labs and workstations, many schools now have sets of laptop computers for students to use. Those machines raise other ergonomic concerns. The AOTA says schools should encourage students to use laptops on a stable surface rather than awkward setups such as sitting on the floor. When possible, students should connect an external keyboard and mouse to their laptop, and position them just as they would with a desktop computer.

The Cornell University Ergonomics Web (CUErgo) notes that with most laptops it is difficult to place the screen and the keyboard at the proper position at the same time. “The best way to avoid discomfort is to place the keyboard at a comfortable distance and enlarge the font, which you can always reduce later,” the CUErgo guide says.

Lab work

Laboratories are another area of schools and universities where closer attention to furniture and ergonomics can help students work more comfortably and efficiently.

“Using a laboratory workbench as a computer workstation is an example of inappropriate use, since it forces the worker to assume a variety of awkward postures and may increase the likelihood of acquiring musculoskeletal disorders,” says the University of Minnesota's Department of Environmental Health and Safety.

The height of a workbench will determine what kind of work is appropriate, the university says. For a workbench with a height of between 37 and 43 inches, use for precision work; between 34 and 37 inches, use for light work; between 28 and 35 inches, use for heavy work.

Hurricane relief

Hundreds of thousands of students were displaced from their schools when Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast last fall. Schools that sustained serious damage, as well as those schools that took in students who had to leave their homes behind, desperately needed furniture.

In response, the U.S. Department of Education, together with the Department of Defense's Defense Logistics Agency, the General Services Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency have formed the Furniture for Schools Task Force. Its aim is to enable the federal agencies to combine their resources and quickly provide surplus desks, computers, filing cabinets, bookshelves and room dividers to schools affected by the hurricane.

“The Furniture For Schools Task Force will ensure that surplus federal government property is made available to schools in the most devastated areas,” says Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. “Every day we are also matching schools' needs with private donations through the Hurricane Help for Schools website ( Americans have given generously to help these schools and to restore a sense of structure and normalcy to the lives of displaced students.”



In degrees, the desired angle of a user's elbows when using a keyboard.

Source: North Carolina State University Environmental Health and Public Safety Center

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