We’re getting bigger. And so are our office chairs.
Instead of desk chairs built to handle a typical 253-pound employee, the office manufacturing industry has created a new category: “large occupant” chairs that can handle someone weighing 400-plus pounds.
“We call ’em ‘Big Boy’ chairs,” said Gene Gualco, vice president of California Office Furniture in downtown Sacramento. “We’re getting calls all the time for chairs that will handle up to 500 pounds. There’s a pent-up demand for that type of chair.”
Under new standards released in January, manufacturers have precise measurements for how wide – 22 inches – and how much weight – 400 pounds – an office chair must be built to comfortably accommodate a larger-than-average employee. The standard width for office chairs is 19.2 inches.
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“There’s a big demand,” said David Panning, spokesman for the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association, based in Grand Rapids, Mich. “People are getting larger and heavier. ... This has been on our to-do list for a long time.”
The association developed the standards in partnership with Mississippi State University.
Using a “stress and strain” gauge, MSU’s testing started in 2011 using 10 subjects – five men and five women – most weighing between 300 and 400 pounds.
Each was asked to enact up to 24 exertions typically carried out in an office chair: sit down normally, sit down “hard” (a “plop”), swivel, lean back, reach behind to grab a book, reach down to pick up an item near the floor, and exit the chair leaning on one armrest. At each juncture, the impact on two test chairs was measured.
Based on the testing, the new standards will enable manufacturers to meet the demand for heavier-duty office chairs, estimated to be 4 percent to 5 percent of the office furniture market, according to the furniture association’s Panning. “If an employer is going to provide 100 chairs, they’ll need 95 (regular standard) chairs ... and five larger chairs,” he said.
Although a wider, structurally stronger chair could be used by someone smaller, it “may not be ergonomically correct or comfortable for those users,” according to the industry group.
Such large chairs carry a heftier price tag, as much as 50 percent to 100 percent more than a conventional-size chair, according to industry veterans.
If it’s a $500 standard office chair, the price could be $1,000 for the “large occupant” version, said Gualco, who has worked in the industry since 1976. “We’ve sold them. I’ve seen some that are $3,000 for people who are up to 700 pounds.”
Many of his customers who need “large occupant” chairs are city, county and state government offices.
Gualco said he had a chair with a 3-foot-wide seat on his showroom floor that was purchased by a local government agency for a 750-pound employee. “I could put two of my secretaries in it, two normal-sized people.”
With the new standards, the furniture manufacturing industry can better design chairs for larger users that will last longer and hold up better in office environments. “It’s inappropriate to market a chair for large people that does not have a minimum width standard,” Panning said. “It’s necessary and has been necessary for a long time.”