Over the past few months, we’ve seen several work-from-home musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) injuries involving non-adjustable, or fixed, chairs used at a kitchen or dining room table. Fixed chairs pose a number of risks to home-based professionals, and we’ve recently begun to hear a lot more reports of discomfort. Unfortunately, many individuals are still working in fixed chairs for the majority of the day, which may be resulting in back or neck pain.
Fixed chairs pose a risk in three primary areas:
- Limited adjustability forces workers to fit themselves to the task at hand. For instance, if the keyboard is too high or the feet aren’t fully supported, workers tend to move forward for foot support or prop themselves on their forearms and elbows while typing.
- Limited support leads to subconscious awkward postures when the body areas most vulnerable to injury (neck, back, lower back) begin to experience fatigue, pain, or discomfort.
- Limited padding can create hard or sharp points of contact that result in discomfort and soft-tissue compression.
Two temporary workarounds are available that address all of these issues to some extent. Making just a few changes will enable you to work with more padding and support and manually set your seated height to better match the hand working height of your keyboard.
Low Cost Option Supplies
Before ordering anything, verify your working height. You can do this by sitting at your computer and turning to one side. Drop your arms to your side, relax your shoulders and bend your elbows until your forearms are flat, or parallel with the floor. Now compare the height of your hands with the height of the keyboard and measure the height difference if possible. If your hands are level with the keyboard, or less than 1″ (2 fingers) below it, order a 1″-2″ thick seat pad. If the distance is greater, order a thicker seat pad, rather than multiple thinner ones, to help you reach the desired height.
- Place the seat pad on the seat. If one side is thicker than the other, place the thicker side toward the back. If you are using two seat pads with an uneven distribution of thickness, place the thicker end of one pad toward the back, and the thicker end of the other toward the front to create a more even surface. Either way, with the additional pads in place, your elbows should be at or slightly above the vertical height of your keyboard.
- Place the lumbar support at your lower back so that when you’re seated with both the lumbar support and seat pad(s) in place, you are able to sit up straight with little to no effort.
- Position the footrest. Once you’ve added the seat pads to the chair, you will be seated higher. Use a footrest to ensure your feet are fully supported. Adjust its height so that your knees are in line with your hips.
- Reassess the height of your monitor(s). Make sure that the top of the screen(s) is at eye level; if your seated height has increased by much, you may need to adjust it.
No-Cost Option Supplies
- 3 or 4 couch cushions/pillows (ideally one wider or longer flat pillow and 2-3 smaller flat pillows)
- Towel for lumbar and/or upper-leg support
- Boxes or books for foot support
- Twine, string, or bungee cords to hold pads and towels in place
- Fixed chair (this will work for almost any chair, but makes the biggest difference with a fixed chair)
- Place the largest pillow or cushion at the back of the seat where the backrest and seat pan would come together. Tie it in place with twine or string so that half of the pillow is against the backrest and the other half is against the seat pan.
- Place a second pillow or cushion entirely on the seat pan so that it overlaps the bottom half of the first pillow as much as possible.
- Place a third pillow or cushion entirely on the backrest so that it overlaps the other half of the first pillow. If you sit in the chair now, you’ll feel a cradle of support in your hips and lower back and it should be easier to sit up straight. If not, you may need to adjust the position or size of each pillow. For more lower back support, add a rolled-up towel to the lumbar area. For upper back support, add a fourth pillow to the top of the backrest. Use twine or string to anchor these items in place.
- Assess your seated height.
- Are your elbows in line with the keyboard? If they are more than an inch or so above, you may need to use a thinner pillow on the seat pan. If they are below your keyboard, use additional pillows as needed.
- Are your feet fully supported, and are you knees in line with your hips? If not, use a box or books to fill the gap between your feet and the floor and to raise the level of your knees. For added comfort, you can attach a pad to the top of the box or book using adhesive Velcro.
- Reassess the height of your monitor(s). Make sure that the top of the screen(s) is at eye level; if your seated height has increased by much, you may need to readjust it.
- If you need more support for your legs closer to the front edge of the seat or at the lower back, roll up a towel and place it behind or in front of the seat cushions.
You should now have a fixed chair that has been modified for temporary support while working from home. Please bear in mind that this is a comfort modification and is not a suitable or long-term replacement for a properly supportive office chair. It may, however, provide enough extra support to help you maintain good seated posture during your search for the right at-home sitting solution.