Size matters

We're just ordinary people, right? Wrong, if you're talking about anthropometric dimensions says Jorgen Josefsson, managing director, RH Chairs.

ANALYSIS, Facilities Management

Although the advancement of equality throughout the workplace is always a thing to be championed, using a coverall policy as a blanket basis for approaching the issue of ergonomic requirements in the office is a flawed practice, particularly as the field of anthropometrics is one where we are far from equal, certainly in terms of size, shape and stature.

There is no such thing as a standard size when it comes to people and this is evidenced by the fact that despite any efforts to introduce international guidelines - if not legislation - people from different parts of the world vary in terms of dimensions, sometimes quite dramatically.

One of the places where this is more evident than most is in Dubai, a cosmopolitan mix of different nationalities and expatriates from all over the world, often working together in the same environments regardless of any individual specific individual requirements.

With a population expected to double in around four years time, swelled by a continuing influx of foreign workers, Dubai is a melting pot of nationalities, with less than 20% of the region's workers actually registered UAE citizens.

Europeans, Americans and especially workers from Southern Asia live and work in Dubai, with more arriving every year.

With Dubai's fast growing reputation as a finance and communications hub, this means a large proportion of these foreign arrivals find work in office based environments.

Although widespread legislation and best practice guidelines may have made some countries think global in terms of how to meet the demands of users in the office, Dubai and the rest of the Middle East is playing catch up.

The little differences between nations mean that designers and facilities managers still have to act local, whether this is cost effective or not.

This has led furniture manufacturers in different parts of the world to develop their products in accordance with both local legislation and culture and the anthropometric make up of the local population.


In Europe for example, attempts to instil Europe-wide legislation have faced some problems.

As regulations tend to work on the basis of the middle 95% of the user population - which is fine for most people - in an area as wide as an entire continent this means that very significant numbers of the population are not catered for.

However, another problem is that a lot of the legislation is based on this anthropometric data collated during the early 1980s. Some of this data is now very out of date and in need of updating to take account of the changing shape of the population.

For example, America used to be the tallest nation in the world and several nations, including many in Europe, have now surpassed the US in terms of average stature, particularly the Netherlands and Scandinavian countries.

In particular, the average height in the Netherlands has increased at a rapid rate and today it has the tallest average in the world, with young men averaging over 6ft tall. The increase has been so dramatic that various items such as desks have been redesigned to fit the much taller frames.

This is in stark contrast with the average height of young males in Vietnam and North Korea - comparatively small at 5ft 4in (1.63m) and 5ft 5in (1.65m).

If, particularly in somewhere such as Dubai, people of such variance in height and weight are likely to be occupying the same office space, then allowances must be made to accommodate them, rather that shoe horn them into a one-size-fits-all environment that doesn't cater for anyone outside a specified, often out-of-date demographic.

Employees who are taller or shorter than average, must be given the same opportunities to function at work, including equipment and furniture that caters for their own specific requirements.


In the UK, the shift is less about patterns in height change and more about weight. Recent statistics indicate that around 42% of men and 32% of women are now classed as overweight, compared to just 6 and 8% respectively in 1980.

Although a system such as Body Mass Index (BMI) testing, which is what most weight statistics are based on today, has its flaws, (not least labelling professional rugby players as borderline obese), it still indicates a dramatic change in the shape of the British population in a relatively short space of time.

Office seating in particular needs to be designed to provide the correct support for a full range of sizes, no matter how much they weigh.

It's important to provide seating that is adjustable in terms of dimensions, but a 5ft 8in woman of medium build doesn't have much in common in terms of anthropometrics with a man of the same height that weighs 18 stone.

Apart from their similar height, the physical differences between these two are huge, which will have a direct bearing on how they use their chairs in order to get the best performance out of them. This is why it's important that users are trained on how to use and adjust their chairs not only to suit their height and leg length, but also to achieve the correct chair tension in relation to body weight, creating the desired level of weight distribution.

An example of an area of ergonomic research where the most progress has been made in the UK is provided by the development of equipment for the use of the newly ubiquitous generation of flat screen monitors (TFT) and laptops.

There is a double whammy of benefits associated with the use of flat screens. Flat screen monitors themselves are good for you in lots of ways: the way they produce images, their higher resolution and their lower glare make them better for your eyes which in turn has other business benefits.

Research undertaken in Germany recently showed that in a visual task, search speeds were 22% faster for TFT users. TFT screens are inherently flicker free, whereas a CRT refreshes itself 70 or less times a second.

In pure ergonomic terms, it is also easier to position a TFT screen to provide the optimum viewing distance for each user.

Coupled with monitor arms, which are already in widespread use throughout places such as the USA, especially in schools, this is an important way to help reduce risks to worker wellbeing.

There are already laws in place to provide the appropriate equipment and furniture for those that may otherwise be impaired or restricted in some way by a ‘standard' approach, such as wheelchair users.

Perhaps legislation or at least access to helpful information needs to be introduced in order help employers best cater for the differing dimensions of their increasingly international workforces. This in turn would lead to better feedback and market research results for designers and manufacturers, that can start to tailor their furniture to a truly international market that can cater for anyone, rather than most people in a particular country.

Despite the need to address different physical requirements of different nationalities, there are many common threads that bind workplace design in different countries.

The core issues that shape the way we design and manage offices, such as status, organisational culture, technology, legislation and corporate identity, can be seen in each country, but the people that come from these countries, wherever they end up working, are not simple drones that can be catered for by a uniform approach to ergonomic health for everyone.

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