Ergonomics Play Important Role in New Learning Habits

The old flip-top wooden school desk of yore is an icon of innocence, youth and American learning. It is also one of the most uncomfortable pieces of furniture in existence. With the advent of computers, the traditional school desk has metamorphosed into an ergonomic workstation. Computer-friendly tables, chairs and desks are pivotal to good teaching and learning because computer use creates a unique strain on the human body, the effects of which include eye strain; neck and back pain; fatigue; and carpal tunnel syndrome, a wrist-hand affliction caused by continuous keyboarding without proper wrist support. By applying scientific principles to achieve better working conditions, equipment and furniture can be manufactured in a way that reduces the stress and strain often placed on administrators, instructors and students. Several national standards and guidelines have been developed based on sound ergonomic principles: the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) in conjunction with the Human Factors Society (HFS); the Canadian Standards Association's CAN/CSA-2412-M89 Office of Ergonomics; and the International Standards Organization (ISO) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) recommendations, which are currently under development. Basically, the ultimate comfort of the user is key. Many factors should be considered when ordering computer desks, tables and chairs: the distance from the user to the computer screen, the height of the monitor, room lighting, height of the table, correct back support, clearance for disabled users, correct wrist positioning and more. Numerous manufacturers have furniture that meet the above national guidelines. The benefits are invaluable -- improved student and employee attentiveness, less fatigue, fewer medical costs and overall better productivity. It should be said that T.H.E. Journal d'es not endorse one interpretation of the ergonomic guidelines as more valid than another. Most companies will be happy to send information that explains their implementation of ergonomic design.


The Chair Two words have been associated with correct sitting posture from the get-go: lumbar support. One chair manufacturer, ZackBack International, Inc., offers the ZackBack Posture Chair, which challenges the notion that lumbar is the only way. The company states that lower back support actually distorts one's sitting posture by displacing the upper trunk and both relaxing and overstretching the lower abdominal muscles. Their chair is multi-adjustable, adding sacral support above the lower back as well as lower spine support below the lumbar region rather than against it. The chair is said to promote proper diaphragmatic breathing while providing proper pelvic and spinal stabilization. Chairs are available with or without armrests. Desks A hotly-debated topic by some is the placement of computer monitors on desks. Current ANSI/HFS standards allow for viewing angles of 0 to -60 degrees below the horizontal line of sight; Canadian standards call for 0 to -45 degrees. To support these guidelines, several manufacturers favor placing monitors below the worksurface level, with a glare-resistant glass plate facilitating viewing. Nova Office Furniture's response is to position monitors from 20 to 40 degrees below the horizontal line of sight, which the company maintains alleviates chronic neck pain and keeps a constant optimal distance between the user and the screen. The 85 Series, suited for computer labs, places the computer, its components and wires within the unit. Eye contact with students is maintained throughout a lesson. Other desk features are a pull-out keyboard drawer with wrist rest. The Multimedia Instructor Station, a new implementation of this technology, integrates computer and overhead projector hardware below the work surface; an LCD panel can be used at the worksurface height. Paralax offers a similar design strategy. Viewport desks place monitors between 20 and 40 degrees below the line of sight. In addition, all are shipped with a visor or hood to reduce unusual lighting problems. Both the monitor shelf and the keyboard drawer can be adjusted to user preference. Lastly, Interior Concepts offers their "down under" workstations. Also placing the monitor beneath the desk's surface, the workstation's pull-out keyboard tray offers additional storage. Rugged, scratch-resistant and easy to assemble, the SnapEase line from MicroComputer Accessories, Inc., a Rubbermaid company, includes a 46" computer desk, a hutch and a printer cart. Panels snap together without tools or hardware and are composed of steel-reinforced Resinite. The desk boasts a full-width, glide-out keyboard drawer with a built-in wrist rest, area for a mouse and pad, and space to store diskettes and other supplies. The printer cart has two back wheels and fits easily beneath the desk itself. Suited for use as a teacher's desk or small-group learning center, the Supro desk from Synsor Corp. boasts many ergonomic features, yet is mobile enough to act as a multimedia lectern. The gently sloped, 20"-wide work surface adjusts in height, sports a contoured oak palm rest, and places the mouse and keyboard on the same level. A thin storage area behind the surface holds the keyboard and mouse. The computer monitor panel is slightly lower than the rest of the desk to provide an unobstructed line of sight between students and teachers. A locking rear panel acts as a cord management center. A multimedia equipment pedestal nests under the desk and holds a computer, printer, VCR, videodisc player and more. The Supro folds ups from 42" wide to 30" wide, allowing it to pass through standard doorways. An optional scanner or overhead projector platform makes presentations easy. Lastly, a semi-circle of desk area on the opposite side provides ample work space or can accommodate three students. Tables Several manufacturers offer computer tables, often chosen for computer labs. Spectrum Industries makes the Computer Lab Advanced Support System, a line of computer tables and printer stands with a unique flip-top cord management system that holds all computer and monitor cables, thereby reducing clutter on the back of the table and the floor. The Tutor Table and Track System from Howe Furniture Corp. consists of 60" x 28" and 42" x 28" rectangular folding tables and a series of top bridges that snap together. Options are half-round and trapezoidal folding ender tables. Two other tables are height-adjustable, making them easier for handicapped users. The first is the System 8100 from The Toledo Metal Furniture Co. It adjusts from 31" to 41" high for either sitting or standing work. Its all-steel frame is topped by a high-pressure laminate tabletop. Optional equipment ranges from a vertical upper structure to fluorescent light fixtures. The SOHO Computer Table from SOHO is also adjustable. Based on a slide-and-lock technology, the table's monitor and keyboard shelves can be raised and lowered by turning two knobs. Also, the angle of the keyboard shelf can be tilted up to 20 degrees for maximum comfort. An accompanying SOHO Printer Table is available too. And lastly, Synsor Corp. manufactures two-student computer tables and printer stands. The tables feature a wire feed slot concealed behind a wood-grain panel, a removable access panel and steel floor runners with adjustable glides. Measurements range from 36" long to 48" with a 28"-deep work surface. Modular Centers Computer centers, media labs and activity-based computer classrooms are also taking on a new look. Rather than lines of tables, modular centers are designed to accommodate four or more students at learning stations. The approach saves space, reduces furniture costs and make supervision easy for instructors. One example is Intelec, an integrated electronic education center from Counterpoint. Comprised of four corner units with partition walls, Intelec places troughs under the rear edges of each to conceal cables and wires. Options are steel marker boards, tackable acoustic boards, CRT stands and more. Interior Concepts also offers what they call technology labs -- four-workstation, separated set-ups with raised student call lights to signal instructor assistance. These centers are suited for robotics, CAD, drafting and other studies. Of the many furniture items sold by Smith Systems, of note are their cluster work centers, which eliminate the partitioning walls used in the above systems. Table leg heights are adjustable in one-inch increments. Wire management is provided via a vertical housing. Options include three-student trapezoidal tables, four-student square tables or a six-person hexagon table created by placing two three-student tables together. The latter design is supported by a riser shelf that places printers, paper, supplies and other items above students yet within arm's reach. Paragon Furniture, Inc. has added the Economy Series of single-level, three- or four-student work centers to its furniture line. Features are a wire-management basket, a 20" power cord channel, steel legs with one-inch adjustable glides and 26"-high table legs. A coordinating elevated shelf is also offered. Another company, Bretford Manufacturing, offers a wide variety of educational furniture. Their Connections line can be used as stand-alone units or grouped together. The line includes a 96"-wide trapezoid table for three computers that can be doubled to accommodate six students. Corner tables and printer stands are available as well. Solid steel construction and environmentally safe powder-paint finishes are standard; shelve units are optional. Grommet holes and cord-management bins keep table tops clear. The company offers a Room Planning Kit that helps schools design their own computer centers using cut-outs of all furniture pieces in the Connections line. Schools that have relationships with local vocational-technical colleges, or advanced wood shops may want to build their own modular labs. Taylor Engineering provides lab furniture plans that help schools "do it themselves" and, according to the firm, spend one-tenth the amount needed to purchase pre-built furniture. The plans are drawn using AutoCAD, measure 18" x 24" and sport exploded views. They are sold in a packet for all six pieces: attention-focusing module (partitioned work area that can be used as a corner unit or singly), presentation podium, lab manager center, grading caddy, video production studio desk and video production console. Media Carts The portable media cart has also had a face-lift. Wheelit, Inc.'s Model 6000 AV Monitor Cart features a pyramid design that lowers the unit's center of gravity and provides better stability. A 32" x 24" upper platform supports a 25" monitor, while a 28"-high center platform is at a convenient level for VCR use. The cart is equipped with buckle-end straps and five-inch locking casters that provide safe passage for up to 180 pounds of equipment. And Bretford Manufacturing has expanded their line of patented wide-body carts with the addition of the BBILS1-P4. Reaching 44", it boasts a top shelf that can support up to 27"-diagonal monitors, a locking roll-out shelf that pulls out to either side to accommodate instructional materials, a stationary middle shelf for VCRs or videodisc players, and a fixed bottom shelf. The cart rolls on four-inch casters, two of which lock. The same unit is also offered in a version with a two-outlet electrical unit.

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/1994 issue of THE Journal.