October 27, 2004

Study Shows Benefits Of Standing on the Job

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For employees with computer desk jobs, adjustable-height tables may provide relief from the discomfort and inflexibility of fixed-height workstations, according to a recent Cornell study. Prof. Alan Hedge, design and environmental analysis, the director of Cornell’s Human Factors and Ergonomics Laboratory, investigated this possibility in a recent study on the electric height-adjustable work surface, or EHAW.

Employees who used the EHAW experienced “significantly less musculoskeletal upper-body discomfort, lower afternoon discomfort scores and significantly more productivity,” Prof. Hedge stated in a press release.

The EHAW is a table with a built-in electronic control pad. By fiddling with the up and down buttons on the pad, users can sit low to the ground, stand up and otherwise fine-tune the table height in accordance with their preferences. According to the study, people using the new tables preferred to stand up about 21 percent of the day

Hedge conducted studies at two locations, an Intel Corporation site on the West Coast where employees performed extensive computer work and an insurance company in the Midwest where employees did moderate computer work. Employees at both locations filled out questionnaires about their work patterns and musculoskeletal discomfort before being separated into experimental and control groups. After a month, Hedge resurveyed the employees.

After accounting for company transfers, vacations and “three people who refused to give up their tables,” Hedge said he had full data on 33 employees at the end of the study. The results indicated that more than 80 percent of the employees favored the EHAWs to the fixed-height tables. The discomfort index score for those using an EHAW was 20 percent lower than those not using one.

“An EHAW can be helpful to anyone with a back injury who needs to stand for back relief for part of the day and also for anyone who wishes to work in sitting or standing arrangements,” Hedge stated.

Hedge’s report also indicates that “these changes occurred over a relatively short timescale of 4 to 6 weeks which suggests that the potential benefits may be even greater after longer time periods of use.”

Both companies involved in Hedge’s study purchased adjustable tables. Earnest Ray, occupational ergonomist at Intel, reported that the employees at Intel found the “new tables useful, beneficial” and “were able to work more efficiently.”

People who previously “experienced musco-skeletal discomfort managed the pain better” with the new tables, he said.

One manager told Ray that she was able to find the “sweet spot”, or optimum table height, for the first time in her life.

Hedge noted that although EHAWs are common outside the United States and even mandatory in Denmark, they are rare in the United States.

“I wanted to see what’s so great about them,” he said, explaining the impetus for conducting the study.

Hedge hopes that this study and similar studies will promote a “refocus[ing] of companies in how they encourage people to move during the day.” With the expanding problem of obesity and its related health risks in America, movement during the day is important, he said. Because the adjustable work surfaces are priced much higher than normal tables — costing anywhere from $800 to $2,000 — Hedge does not anticipate many corporations purchasing them in the immediate future. However, he believes that as with desktop computers and cell phones, the price of these tables will spiral down as technology becomes more efficient and other companies join the bandwagon to produce EHAWs.

“In the next couple of years, as companies replace their furniture, we might see more of these tables in the workplace,” Hedge predicts.

Jenny Huang ’07 agreed that if the “tables were economically appealing, then they would be a good investment. The idea itself is great.”

Archived article by Cathy Tang
Sun Staff Writer