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OM in the News: The Long and the Short of the Perfect Office Chair

June 6, 2014

ergonomicsErgonomics (see Chapter 10) is an important issue for operations managers, be it in a factory setting or in an office. A rising problem, reports The Wall Street Journal (May 20, 2014) is the office chair. Most chairs are designed for the 5th to the 95th percentile of the population—people who are closer to average in size. That leaves roughly 4 million white-collar workers on the unlucky extremes of the bell curve—too small for their chair, with legs dangling, or too big for their chair, with knees bent up toward the chin.

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who is 4 foot 10 inches, once sawed off the legs of his office chair and desk to make them fit. He was working in the Justice Department in the 1970s, and the General Services Administration refused his request to shorten his standard-sized wooden desk and chair. “I snuck in one weekend with my saw and did it myself, and sent the stubs to the GSA administrator,” Dr. Reich says. His office chair later as Labor Secretary left his legs sticking out, so he held meetings standing up.

Solving the problem can be complicated for employers. Some worry about fostering resentment if they give one employee a special chair. Also, changing the size of a chair often means the desk must be raised or lowered too. Manufacturers are offering more work tables that can be adjusted with an electric lift, a hand crank or movable pins in the legs. They are also making more work surfaces, keyboard supports and computer-monitor arms that can be moved on vertical rails.

Most operations managers are under heavy pressure to hold down costs, however, and providing special items for a few workers conflicts with a common strategy of buying many standard items at discounted prices. Special chairs can list for $1,000 or more. But the need for adjustable chairs is growing. Steelcase Inc. recently studied the body shapes and postures of 2,000 workers in 11 countries and found that “extreme size” is on the rise.

Classroom discussion questions:

1. Why is ergonomics an important OM issue in offices?

2. Are height issues a similar problem in factories?

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