Originally created 03/20/00

A better chair for the workplace



Basketball coach Bobby Knight likes to throw them, executives like to spin in them as they count their money and TV stars like to have sex in them -- at least during "sweeps" months. But chairs are rarely a hot topic for water-cooler conversations. Mostly they just sort of sit in the background.

A $35 million chair may change all that. That's how much it cost Steelcase to design its Leap chair, a four-year project aimed at changing the basic foundation of the office chair.

But the Leap doesn't come cheap. A typical model has a list price of about $1,000, which no doubt would make Knight throw a fit. He could toss around dozens of folding chairs and a few expletives for that price. If you think your boss would react pretty much the same way if you requested such a chair, consider the big argument in favor of the Leap: ergonomics. In an era when more workers are using computers for hours at a time, anything that reduces the risk of repetitive stress injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, could save a company far more than $1,000.

According to 1997 figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, people with carpal tunnel syndrome were absent from work for a median of 25 days. By comparison, the typical worker who had an amputation missed 18 days. Bad ergonomics can lead to other injuries and assorted headaches, backaches and neck aches, of course. Even when those ailments don't cause people to miss work, they can disrupt their focus and sap their energy.

Can the Leap prevent some of those injuries? It's too early to tell -- it's been around only since August but it's clearly better than any "ergonomic" chair I've seen. A coworker and I tested the Leap for a few weeks, and here are the similarities and differences between it and a typical ergonomic chair, which costs about one-third as much (you can often get at least a 20 percent discount off the Leap's list price):

The arms on both chairs can be raised and lowered separately, but the Leap's armrests have three advantages.

They're padded, you can move them closer to your body and you can turn them at an angle so that your hands are closer together than your elbows are. Having support for your arms limits the risk of RSI. In most chairs, though, the armrests are fixed at a 90-degree angle to the keyboard and they have to be far enough apart to accommodate your hips. That means your arms are often at a different angle than 90 degrees, especially if you're using the smaller keyboard of a laptop computer.

In the Leap, you can move the base of the seat forward or back without changing the rest of the chair. That helps shorter people, who often have trouble with a typical chair; if they sit against the backrest, as they should, they're legs are usually uncomfortable. The front part of the seat also can be adjusted up or down without affecting the rest of the seat. That allows the back of your legs to get a little support, but not any uncomfortable pressure. The backrest of the ergonomic chair can be tilted, but the Leap's back reclines only if you lean against it. On the Leap, you can adjust how much resistance you get as you lean back, as well as setting the maximum for how far you want to go. Unlike some chairs, you never have that momentary fear that you're about to fall backward. As you lean back, the base of the seat also slides forward, allowing you to keep the basic support in your lower back.

The ergonomic chair has a fixed pad for lumbar support, but the back of the Leap lets you adjust the firmness of that pad. The Leap also has extra pads for both the left and right sides of your back that can be raised and lowered independently, giving support wherever you want it for the lower or middle part of your back.

My colleague who tried the chair had just returned from a few weeks off work with RSI. She said she would have liked the Leap's arm pads to adjust forward and backward as well as side to side, and she would have preferred another support pad for the upper back, but added that the chair is far better than what she normally uses.

Michael Wilder, director of shared services at Arthur Andersen in San Francisco, recently bought 900 of the chairs for Andersen employees. There, too, the response has been favorable.

Details also are available on Steelcase's Web site (http:www.steelcase.com). Is the Leap worth the leap in the price of a chair? If you spend hours each day typing on a computer, it could be just what the doctor ordered.

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com.