Ergonomics solutions for school pupils

Ergonomics expert Claire Kendrick writes about how poorly designed school furniture can harm children’s postures, and how improving awareness can prevent future problems

Do you suffer with back pain or bad posture? Did you know that according to backcare UK, back pain is the leading cause of sickness absence from work in the UK and it costs the NHS £1.3 million, the UK government £13 million in benefits and the UK economy £37 million a day?
What if, as a nation, we could take steps to help prevent the onset of backpain by tackling the issue from a young age? Could we educate children about the importance of taking care of their backs in the same way that we educate children about the health effects of smoking and the importance of regular exercise and healthy eating?
A large study by Leboeuf-Yde and Kyyik in 1998 found that causes of lower back pain can start in childhood and concluded that prevention of lower back pain needs to be focused on in childhood and adolescence. A number of studies have been carried out which support the notion that postural health education in primary schools can be successful in improving back muscle strength and raising awareness of the importance of back care. Perhaps postural health education introduced at nursery school age and throughout the rest of school years could go some way to protect children from developing bad habits which could lead to back problems in later life?

Enforcing good habits
A number of factors affect the postural health of children, including their use of classroom furniture, heavy backpacks, underlying health conditions and sitting habits at home. This article focuses on some of the issues faced by schools (knowingly or unknowingly) in relation to classroom chairs and desks.

Children spend most of their school day seated and research into classroom furniture has found that the chairs and tables that children are required to use are inadequate with some studies concluding that almost none of the children studied were able to find an appropriate seat and desk height combination.
During their early school years childrens’ spines are still developing; it is at this young age that sitting habits are formed and bearing this in mind, surely it is of great importance that children are taught about postural health and are provided with the right furniture to support them in practicing good habits? Therefore the introduction of ergonomic furniture that promotes good posture is arguably more important to children than adults. However, The Health and Safety at Work Act 2002 (HSE, 2011) states that “employers must ensure workstations meet specified minimum requirements.”
When talking in terms of display screen equipment, one of these requirements is that chairs should allow the user to achieve a comfortable position. Interestingly though, this legislation only protects adults excluding school children who have no relevant legislation to provide them with appropriate workstations.

Identifying the issues
So what exactly is the problem with classroom furniture? The reason that there is such a mismatch between children and their classroom chairs and tables is that one size does not fit all. One size desk and one size of chair is usually selected for each age group and since the size of children varies so widely between gender, build and age, it is easy to see how a mismatch will occur. It is also a misconception that all furniture in catalogues supplying classroom furniture is good for children, generally this furniture is made to be durable and cost effective rather than to provide children with an ergonomic solution.
The bucket shape of most school chairs used in classrooms restricts the variety of postures that children are able to assume and encourages static postures. However, we know this to be potentially harmful:

“Changing positions is essential for the health of our spinal discs. They don’t have veins, so must get their nutrition via a process of diffusion, which depends on a pump or sponge mechanism” (Cranz, 1998).
Chair design can promote the kind of natural movement which is required to keep the spine healthy. Attention span and concentration can also be improved by good chair design. It has been stated that in a school in which the child’s natural need of movement is supported and actively encouraged, a positive development of the ability to study and willingness to work can be expected. He found that in a control group where movement was not part of the curriculum, attentiveness deteriorates so much that by the fifth lesson concentrated study does not appear to be possible anymore.

My own research investigated the barriers preventing schools catching up with research in terms of ergonomic classroom furniture. Interviews were carried out with teachers, headteachers and other stakeholders and concluded that there are four main perceived challenges for schools when considering the introduction of postural health education and ergonomic furniture:
There is sometimes a lack of awareness of the issue in general as well as about the ergonomic furniture options available. This lack of awareness is perceived in teachers, parents, school business partners and the government.

Regarding money, there is certainly a perception that the introduction of postural health education and ergonomic furniture will be expensive and in the current financial climate schools already face budget constraints.
Also, possibly due to the lack of awareness, an already packed curriculum and the constant release of new technology, preventing back pain is not a high priority for schools
Finally, there was a perception among teachers interviewed that implementing this back care initiative will be time consuming as well as disruptive to lessons.

One way of improving awareness of the issue is to incorporate postural health education into teacher training programs; this would allow newly qualified teachers entering the education system to bring this knowledge into the schools which could then filter out to other teachers and head teachers. Training courses and awareness weeks within schools could also help to address this issue.
Once awareness is raised in schools and the importance of the issue is highlighted, it could act as a driver for the government to incorporate it into the health and well being aspects of the curriculum, possibly helping to make it a higher priority, which in turn could encourage schools to consider purchasing ergonomic options when they come to replace their existing furniture.
This process is not going to happen overnight and schools do not have to throw away their existing furniture tomorrow. By introducing postural health education and raising awareness of its importance, the nation’s schools may be able to start to transition from cost driven purchasing to investing into the health of children’s backs for the future.
A strong implementation strategy is needed, but to do this an authority with a strong interest and the ability to drive this forward is also needed. It is politicians and government officials that can have a real influence on the education system. Further research is needed to understand the barriers that they foresee and to ascertain why postural health education is not a priority, especially considering the current prevalence of back pain and its’ high cost to the economy. 
Although there has been a lot of research on this subject, perhaps none of it is persuasive enough in terms of cost effectiveness to encourage governing bodies to take action. More studies need to be carried out into the long term effects of postural health education in order to create a stronger case. Results from these types of studies providing statistics and projecting economic benefits could have an important impact on the drive for change.

The potential impact of this transition is huge; studies have shown that the initial impact could be an increase in attention span and concentration levels meaning more productive pupils and more control in the classroom.

However, the long term effect could be that the number of people developing back problems could be reduced, which in turn could have great economic benefits with a reduction of NHS costs, a reduction in days lost from work and a reduction in the amount of people suffering from back pain effectively resulting in a cost saving for the government as well as a healthier workforce.

Next time you are in a classroom, at a parents evening or a school play or assembly, spend a minute or two thinking about the chair you are sitting on and ask yourself if you are comfortable – (I predict that you won’t be), ask yourself if you would like to sit in that chair all day and finally ask yourself whether you think these are adequate for children with their soft bones and developing spines.

We are working towards healthier food in schools; now let’s work towards healthier furniture.

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