Putting a Stop to Back Pain at Work

Many people who work in offices suffer from back pain and other musculoskeletal disorders which can result in more days off work and higher costs for companies. Furniture companies and health organizations provide an insight on comfortable seating for workplaces.

Catherine Albert
from WorkFuture gives an overview of work related health issues and what both individuals and companies can do to reduce musculoskeletal problems in the workplace.

Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are injuries and disorders affecting muscles, joints, tendons, ligaments, peripheral nerves and associated blood vessels. They can result in pain, stiffness, altered sensation and loss of strength which make work activities extremely difficult. Most work related MSDs are cumulative disorders, resulting from repeated exposures to risk factors over a long period of time rather than one single trauma or event. Although it is not clear to what extent MSDs are caused by work, their impact on working life is huge. Musculoskeletal disorders are the most common work-related health problem in Europe, affecting millions of workers. MSDs are the biggest cause of absence from work and account for 50% of absences greater than 3 days (European Commission, 2007). In the US the estimated direct costs amounts to US $20 billion a year with indirect costs as high as $45 billion/year (IOSH 2000).

The chances of developing a MSD are higher the greater the exposure to the risk factors and the more risk factors involved. These include: awkward postures, excessive force, highly repetitive work and vibration. Within the office environment the specific risk factors for MSDs are thought to be sustained periods of computer work, awkward postures from poor placement of the computer screen, prolonged use of the keyboard and mouse. However, recent studies now suggest that other factors contribute to the development of musculoskeletal problems. These include mental stress or psychosocial factors such as work load, a lack of control over the work, and the level of support in the workplace. It seems it’s the combination of both physical and psychosocial factors that are likely to result in MSDs such as neck pain.

Interventions aimed at reducing musculoskeletal disorders should be directed at both physical/ergonomic factors and work organizational and psychosocial factors as this combined approach is likely to be more effective than any one measure on its own. Ergonomic interventions include optimizing workplace layout, providing ergonomic training to staff, and the selection of appropriate equipment such  as alternative pointing devices or alternate keyboards. At present there is insufficient evidence for implementing changes to work-rest schedules, or providing task rotation or job enlargement. Organizational interventions include management training in effective supervision and support for staff; when implementing changes within the workplace, use a participatory approach that includes workers in the process of changes; and reduce psychosocial stress by providing employees with greater control over their work to help them deal effectively with time pressures and high workloads. Individual factors can be managed through providing ergonomic training on work techniques to avoid awkward postures and fatigue, and information on good ergonomics and workplace layout. Personal risk factors for MSDs include smoking, being overweight, or in poor physical shape. Therefore general health promotion in the workplace may also have a role to play in MSD prevention. Physical training has been shown to reduce the recurrence of back pain and neck-shoulder pain so increasing employee physical activity may also help.


YouNow Chair: Face2face. Constituted of «+» and «x» symbols linkable in infinite combinations, the piece entitled Face2face, is an invitation to meet, to unite, to add and multiply forces. Every element is adjustable in multiple positions and exists in different colors, allowing us to endlessly reinvent new configurations, new ways to meet each other until we invent a common ground.

Three furniture companies based in Europe give us their insight on chairs and offer various options for different areas within the workplace as well as possible solutions to work related health issues as well.

Maria Manzitti (De Padova, Italy), says “The starting point for every project is offer comfortable seating for workplaces.” On the other hand, Burkhard Remmers (Wilkhahn, Germany), describes what chairs represent “The office chair is the one piece of furniture that people feel most attached to. They often spend more time on it than in bed. Apart from its function as a piece of equipment in the workplace, the chair also reflects a person’s position in company hierarchy.” Remmers also stresses the importance of ergonomics when it comes to seeking solutions that meet all requirements for work environments “The ideal chair sought is one with a certain cachet which at the same time should boost healthy working and cost as little as possible.



A Hundred Years — A Hundred Chairs An exibition of The Vitra Design Museum, Weil am Rhein (Germany).
Drawings, sketches and documents belonging to the Vitra Design Museum accompany the chairs on display. Visitors are given precise details about the pieces on show, which are exhibited in specially designed interiors evoking the historical context in which they were created. Six films reveal the manufacturing process of some of the chairs, giving the spectator general insight into different production techniques.
Tube Chair © Studio Joe Colombo, Milan

Marion Hämmerli (Vitra, Switzerland) says “Shoulder and neck stiffness are the most common problems caused by office jobs as well as problems with the intervertebral discs in the lumbar zone due to long periods of sitting.  Ergonomics is a very important subject throughout the development process of a product, which is why we work together with medical institutions and stay in contact with our customers’ company doctors and other employees related to the health management in order to meet their needs.” Remmers points out how “The lack of motion and the so-called ‘ideal’ postures, preached in today’s brochures from manufacturers and ergonomics institutions, lead to limited metabolic functions and weak muscles. These in turn cause muscle strain and degenerative complaints. Movement is vital if the body is to work properly – but not the type of movement that entails a work-out or putting it under strain, but that stimulates it. The body, its muscles, the spine, the joints and the whole metabolism require stimulation and receptors to keep body and mind fit.” As a matter of fact, Wilkhahn has been working with physiotherapy and research specialists for more than 30 years. Companies also make sure their products meet certain standards. De Padova particularly pays attention to legislation, as Manzitti explains “Our company provides standard or custom products of great quality, in compliance with national and international standards and regulations, which have a particular impact in the contract sector.


Vitra Chairless by Alejandro Aravena (2010) is a simple tool for sitting – a textile strap joined into a loop which can be wrapped around the back and knees in order to stabilize the body and relieve tension, while in a seated position. Chairless takes pressure off the back and thigh muscles. Arms and hands can be used for other activities.

The furniture companies we have interviewed give an overview of comfortable chairs that may suitable for different areas within workplaces which go from meeting rooms and reception areas to cafeterias and relaxing areas, including task chairs and executive chairs. Wilkhahn offers several different ranges and multi-purpose seating as Remmers points out “Because we don’t think in terms of separate products, but in whole product families, our office chair ranges can cover categories such as conference, seminar, counter/reception.” Wilkhahn presents the Modus range as their bestseller which is considered “The benchmark in high quality office chairs that encourage dynamic sitting.” Following the Modus range is Wilkhahn’s new ON range which “Has become an ergonomic yardstick worldwide.” According to Remmers “In addition to different office chair models, ON can also offer conference chairs, stackable four-legged chairs and cantilevers, so that furnishings perfectly co-ordinate.” Vitra proposes an innovative solution with the Headline range. As Hämmerli says, Vitra’s HeadLine range “Not only provides optimal support in the lumbar zone, but also pays attention to vulnerable areas that have previously been neglected – the shoulders, neck and head.” She moves on to explain the advantages of HeadLine seating as opposed to conventional office chairs which may cause muscle strain and tension “The flexible, elongated backrest is suspended from the frame at the critical points of the lower back and neck by means of articulated joints. In the upright position, most of the supportive function is focused on the lumbar zone. When the sitter leans back, the shoulders sink into the back panel and the upper backrest extension tilts forward to support the head. This prevents muscle strain in the neck and shoulder areas. Contrary to conventional office chairs, in which users find themselves gazing at the ceiling in the reclined position, HeadLine maintains a horizontal line of sight with the sitter’s eyes directed towards the computer monitor.

Useful tips for our posture
by Dr. Wagner, osteopathic physician of the American Osteopathic Association.

Incorporating stretch/exercise breaks throughout the work day can help reduce pain and discomfort.
1. To stretch the neck and shoulders, sit in a chair and interlace fingers in front of you. Bring arms overhead, then draw your shoulders and chin back. (Hold for 10 seconds!).
2. Standing tall with hands above your hips and elbows pointing back, bend back slightly from waist and return to upright position. (Repeat 10 times).
3. To stretch hands and forearms, sit in a chair with your arms stretched out in front of you. Starting with the right hand, extend fingers back one by one and hold each finger for 5 seconds.
Creating a user-friendly work station can help workers ensure correct posture positioning, such as:
1. Having the top of the computer screen at eye level.
2. Keeping the keyboard on a flat surface. Shoulders should be relaxed with arms hanging comfortably by the sides, elbows bent 90 degrees and wrists in a neutral position.
3. Locating the mouse at the same level as the keyboard, immediately beside it.

Using Ergonomics in the Office Environment
By Catherine Albert

Computer Monitors
Ensure the screen is directly in front to reduce any twisting of the neck and back.
Position the top of the screen slightly below eye level to reduce bending of the neck. This may be lower for individuals that wear bifocals/trifocals.
Position the screen at an arm’s distance from the user.
Position the screen to avoid reflections from windows and lights.

Place keyboard directly in front of the user to reduce twisting.
Do not rest on a wrist rest while typing.

Input Devices
Place the mouse close to the side of the keyboard.
Ensure elbows are by the side when using the mouse – don’t reach forward or to the side.
Do not rest on a wrist rest while using the mouse or angle the wrist.
Do not hold the hand in mid-air over the mouse when the mouse is not in use.

Document holder
Use a document holder that sits between the screen and the keyboard.
Do not position the document flat on the desk next to the keyboard as this leads to twisting and bending of the neck.
If you need to write on the documents, you should choose a ‘read and write document holder’.

Do not cradle the phone between the shoulder and ear.
Use a headset if you need to write or type while using the phone.

[W     depadova.it     design-museum.de     florencejaffrain.com    osteopathic.org    technogym.com    vitra.com     wilkhahn.com     workfuture.co.uk

Published in the hard-copy of Work Style Magazine, Summer 2010