Are you sitting comfortably?;Subject of the week;Resources

28th May 1999 at 01:00
Most of our school chairs should carry a government health warning, writes Michael Fitzpatrick Love our chairs as we may, for some they are the Western equivalent of foot binding. Ergonomists are now blaming much of our adult back troubles on traditional school furniture.

Until recently, the accepted classroom standard was the right-angle chair and low, usually horizontal, desktops. A combination, which according to experts, is guaranteed to cause nothing but trouble for developing young spines.

Even in reception classes, children spend too long hunched over their work. Combine this with decreasing levels of physical activity and the increasing weight of school bags and the agonies are piling up for later life.

Parts of Europe and elsewhere have seen a growing trend towards ergonomic furniture, to safeguard children at a vulnerable stage in their physical development.

A vociferous champion for improvements in furniture for the young is Danish ergonomist A C Mandal. He says: "If you get chronic back pain there is very little you can do, and about 8 per cent of all children will develop it."

The first priority, says Mr Mandal, is to increase the height of standard classroom chairs. "Children always like to sit on the tallest furniture they can find, which allows them to increase the angle between their legs and back."

The average height of school furniture has decreased by 20cm over the past 50 years even thoughJaverageJchildren's heightsJhaveJincreasedJby around 10cm. This mismatch, says Mr Mandal means "more and more flexion and strain on the backs of our children at a critical period in their lives".

European standards are being changed as a result of his recommendations and there is a growing awareness that sloping desks and chairs can help avoid what is called "spinal discomfort".

The formula for improving posture at school is a simple one - the conventional backward-leaning position is out, replaced by more of a standing or perching-type stance. This is achieved by having seats and desk tops tilted towards one another at about 15 degrees. Furthermore, the front edge of the chair should be 2-4cm above knee height, with children sitting on the sloped part of the seat when reading or writing, and using the backrest only when listening or resting.

Researchers have found that students who tested this position claimed an immediate increase in freedom of movement. And after a year, 90 per cent of them reported a reduction in back stress and pain.

The United Kingdom has much catching up to do, says Denis Lucas, sales manager at Matthews educational furniture, which is in its first year of marketing Danish-style seats and desks.

"In Europe the same legislation that protects office workers protects children," he says "But the UK still uses furniture produced in the 70s."

With many schools strapped for cash, it is perhaps little surprise to find ergonomic seating is the last item on a head's wish list. Even if schools could spare the money, they have too little guidance on furniture policy and too little encouragement from the Government. Although the Department for Education and Employment has promised a purchasing guide for this autumn, and a website with guidelines on suitable furniture for the classroom, at the moment it suggests schools follow the outdated British Standards Institution recommendations.

In the meantime, most schoolchildren will be stuck with what they have, even though, as ergonomist Galen Cranz, professor of architecture at the University of California, reminds us, the conventional chair is a health hazard. No amount of tinkering will redeem it in her eyes, and her solution has been to to do without a chair altogether.

It's a radical approach but it is, she says, the only way to eradicate much of the misery associated with bad backs.

Matthews Educational Furniture, 61-63 Dale Street, Liverpool L69 2DN. Tel: 0151 236 9851

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