March 9th, 2011

Conclusion: What’s the Hubbub About Ball Chairs? Are They Really Ergonomic?

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[Editor's note: This is part 3 -- the conclusion -- to a series that began with What’s the Hubbub About Ball Chairs? Are They Really Ergonomic?]

Some folks seem to think that perception is not everything, it is the ONLY thing.  After analyzing the various opinions of Ball Chair usage by our informal task group, it seems that perception is close to the ruling and deciding factor whether the ball chair is functional for them.  Not necessarily surprising, considering that perception appears to be the ruling king for other things in the ergonomics world.

Naturally, there are some exceptions.  Safety for example, is a key consideration, even surpassing perception.  The potential for air collapse making the ball crash like the Hindenburg perhaps takes at least equal priority… especially in the case of the person who uses the ball as a chair because of their back condition.  Secondly, the total inherent instability of a ball gives the safety professionals on our task force the weebie jeebies.  “Man, that’s Safety 101,” exclaimed one of our colleagues – “ensure the safety of all workers through engineering, process or methods.”  The ergonomists of our task force immediately stated that the workstation should take care of the health of the worker (and prevent injuries) without the worker having to take a conscientious effort at maintaining their own safety.   The workstation, including the chair (or ball) should not introduce a hazardous condition for the worker to deal with, much like forced attention while walking a tightrope.

Indeed, safety should be placed ahead of even perception.  “But Dude, didn’t you just say that perception trumps everything and if someone thinks it’s great, in spite of all its shortcomings, doesn’t that mean that it is indeed great according to your perception theorem introduced through this whole series?”

Well, yes, it does – however a modicum of safety should be emphatically introduced here.  There is no speed limit on Europe’s Autobahn, however you better have a fancy sports car that can run, brake, and handle those high speeds for your own safety.  And like that fancy red sports car, your ball chair should be definitively controllable – stable and ensured of all safety features to keep your behind off the floor.   Remember my case with the lady who sat in a chair that featured a loose backrest – as she sat down first thing in the morning and leaned backwards, the loose chair back let her fall backwards so she hit her head on a radiator fracturing cervical vertebrae.  The same thing could happen with a ball chair popping, quickly deflating or simply by an inattentive user rolling off an inherently unstable seating device.

Our market researcher shed some light on the conundrum — acceptance of the ball chair as a change, attractive as non-traditional out of the box thinking. Speaking from personal and professional experience, the designers are the worst — often resorting to calling such devices ergonomic (look for future columns dealing with this subject). We’ve all seen examples of this and are even sometimes swayed by such antics, which work for ball chairs too. There are those who TOTALLY buy into this thinking, lock, stock and barrel, and espouse the benefits of such “ergonomic” items using all the tools at their disposal to convince someone that their logic is right. One of these tools of course is to button hole an easy target, which just happens to be the friendly neighborhood ergonomist (real or voodoo) making their rounds performing workstation modifications.

Final Conclusion

So after all of our research, we have to come to this conclusion:  Safety comes first – utmost and primary, irrespective of perception.  If you think that product is great for you, then Godspeed to your perception and use it, but like driving that fancy high performance red sports car make sure you know how to control it – otherwise you’ve got no business driving (or sitting on) it lest changes occur in your health from a pulled muscle from an unanticipated posture correction to a fractured skull/fractured vertebrae when you go off balance and you hit your head on the polished marble floor.  The result is too heavy a price to pay for being hip or cool or the first on the block.  They may be good for a specific application, or they may address a short term condition, but not for the everyday for everyone.  

The exercise physiologist who responded to an earlier article may have hit the nail right on the head:  “Use an exercise ball for what it was intended, an exercise ball, not a task chair” – kudos for your insight and logical thinking.

If you have a condition in which the ball chair seems the only solution, you might seek out a REAL ergonomist (not a PT, not an OT, nor a chiropractor – but a real ergonomist) to track down what the real symptomology trigger is and then figure out a real chair that would be applicable.  I suspect if you do this and have become a die hard, flag waving ball chair proponent, the final answer will be one of perhaps using this ball only occasionally with primary use of a real chair with real features to address your occupational injury.

There may be one-in-a-million folks who can aptly use a ball chair safely full time.  I haven’t found them yet. But if you are one of those, be careful and keep constant vigilance for that one split second emergency situation and be prepared for when it occurs. Oh, and by the way, you will probably experience a bit of a drop in productivity while you multitask to keep that portion of your mind focused on not splitting your head open.

[Editor's Note: You can share your experiences or thoughts by submitting your comment publicly, below, or by email]

Ian Chong, a Certified Professional Ergonomist with Seattle based multi-disciplinary Extreme Ergonomics Inc., designs and prototypes unique tools, equipment and workstations addressing occupational injuries in all occupational environments, industrial and office on a national level.  Ian holds advanced degrees in Ergonomics & Occupational Biomechanics, Industrial Design; and Architectural Engineering, and is also profiled in the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.



Comments

  1. Naomi Abrams says:

    Hi Tim,
    Thank you for putting that a bit more eloquently than I would have managed.
    Ian, while I respect your opinions and have found this discussion very interesting, I have to side with Tim on this one. Please don

  2. Nicholas Paolini says:

    I believe that the you can sitting find options that provide most if not all of the ball chair qualities without any of the safety concerns you bring up. However, you can not purchase such an option for anywhere near as cheap as the ball. I see the ball chair as a cheap gateway into true ergonomic sitting for those who are skeptical of the benefits and aren’t quite ready to invest a significant amount into a real ergonomic chair.

  3. Frederick Grose says:

    There are height-adjustable curved-bottom stools available, such as the ‘Vitamin’ from IKEA, which has a adjustable gas cylinder for height control.

    From the catalog description, one wouldn’t know that the bottom is not flat, but has a curved, plate-shaped bottom center extension, which provides the ‘tippy’ effect, but only for a limited angle of deflection.

  4. Frederick Grose says:

    A swivel chair with wheels is similarly much greater a risk to one who is familiar only with fixed-in-place chairs. (The introduction of such movable chairs certainly caused many falls and injuries in the last century.)

    Like maintaining a standing position, a ball chair or curved-bottom stool requires active stabilization.

    Stabilizing a ball in a platform removes a basic feature of the chair and adds a more dangerous instability point at the lip of an uncaptured ball cup.

    Just as people tire of standing and walking, an unstable chair may be at odds with long-duration, uninterrupted use.

  5. Peter Budnick says:

    Ian, thanks for your and the task force’s work on this topic. I agree safety is a primary consideration, but I think there’s something else lurking beyond that that concerns some professional ergonomists — that a chair, or even a ball, is only one component of a system consisting of a workstation, work tasks, work tools, people, process flow, exposure times, etc. It’s how the chair/ball integrates with the rest of the system that is most important to ergonomists (and ultimately the people and populations they support).

    I think most people can recognize at least some health merits to sitting on a fitness ball under the right conditions and circumstances. However, when you place that ball in a work system, many other factors come into play, including basic safety you pointed out. For example, the lack of adjustability makes it unlikely someone will achieve a good match between their hands, eyes, keyboard, mouse and monitor heights. Ergonomists know that even a slight mismatch can translate into postures that can lead to discomfort, or worse, musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), not to mention potential effects on performance (productivity and quality).

  6. Tim Black says:

    Hello Ian. I appreciate this exercise on ball chairs as this issue comes up frequently. I do take some issue with one comment and I quote “If you have a condition in which the ball chair seems the only solution, you might seek out a REAL ergonomist (not a PT, not an OT, nor a chiropractor – but a real ergonomist) to track down what the real symptomology trigger is and then figure out a real chair that would be applicable.”

    Provision of ergonomics services by the allied health professions is rapidly emerging and several governing bodies have guidelines and position papers on this topic. I refer to the article: Work 25 (2005) 173

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