From The Ergoweb® Learning Center

New Office Ergonomics Guidelines Contain Some Big Changes

Three new office ergonomics guidelines should take much of the confusion out of designing and setting up office computer workstations.  The Canadian Standards Association (CSA) released “Guideline On Office Ergonomics” (CSA Standard Z412) in December 2000; the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association (BIFMA) released “Ergonomics Guideline For VDT (Visual Display Terminal) Furniture Used In Office Work Spaces” in February 2002; and the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES) and the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) released BSR/HFES 100 “Human Factors Engineering of Computer Workstations,” which is a draft standard for trial use.

The BSR/HFES 100 document is actually the long overdue update to ANSI/HFES 100, which was originally published in 1998, and served as the primary guideline for north American furniture manufacturers until recently.  (BSR is the ANSI designated acronym for “Board of Standards Review.”)  If a consensus is reached, and the standard is accepted and published, it will revert to ANSI/HFES 100.  Presumably because ANSI/HFES failed to update their 1988 standard within the ANSI 10-year time frame requirement, BIFMA moved ahead with their own guideline.

There are some big differences between these new generation guidelines and the obsolete 1988 ANSI/HFES 100. For example, the original standard used an upright sitting posture as the reference posture that all furniture manufacturers should design to accommodate.  This “90-90-90” posture, referring to the angles at the knees, trunk, and elbows, was misinterpreted by many to represent the only recommended, or worse, the only acceptable posture for computer work.  This myth persists today, but these new guidelines and standards should expand the options and understanding for many.
As the new BSR/ANSI 100 committee chair Tom Albin put it, “I’d like to drive a stake through the heart of the idea that there’s one correct position.” In fact, both the BIFMA and BSR/HFES guidelines specifically recognize four basic reference postures for office computer workstations (See Figure 1):
1. Reclined Sitting
2. Upright Sitting
3. Declined Sitting
4. Standing
Office computing has changed dramatically since the 1980’s when ANSI/HFES 100 was first published. Originally, keyboards were the only input devices discussed. The new version addresses a variety of input and display devices, including keyboards, mice, trackballs, joysticks, styli and light pens, tablets and overlays, and touch-sensitive panels.
Similarly, the display section has been expanded to cover both color and flat-panel displays.  The BIFMA guideline does not address computing equipment, but instead focuses on the concept of “fit” with respect to office furniture. A primary goal in it’s development was to provide an ISO 9241 guideline for North American markets.
The myth that everyone should sit in an upright, 90-90-90 posture persists today.  As the new BSR/ANSI 100 committee chair Tom Albin put it, “I’d like to drive a stake through the heart of the idea that there’s one correct position.”
The BSR/HFES and BIFMA guidelines include sections specifically aimed at furniture and computer equipment manufacturers, but also have ample material aimed at end users in the office arena, including ergonomists, facility managers, health and safety personnel, and others that may be involved in the set-up of office computer workstations.

CSA-Z412 is a much more comprehensive document, and is aimed primarily at the end-user community, as opposed to furniture and computer equipment manufacturers.  It is also more process-oriented, and emphasizes a broad approach to include ergonomics in the design of office systems.  The guideline even addresses telecommuting and lap top computing, and includes a section on material handling (lifting/lowering, pushing/pulling, carrying) in office settings.  If you seek a broad, application  oriented guideline for office ergonomics, this comprehensive document might be the best choice among the three guides discussed in this article.

This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2002-06-01.