Coffee Shop Ergonomics

Body MechanicsBody MechanicsBody MechanicsBody MechanicsBody MechanicsBody Mechanics May 2, 2012

I love coffee. I started drinking it in high school on cold mornings after swim practice. I always drank it black because that’s how they made it. I still love coffee, stopping at a coffee shop almost every day. There are always people working on their laptops at the tables, and I think, “What a great way to work.” Just plop down my laptop and I’m good to go. Working at a coffee shop would be an ideal way to get out of the office, away from the kids, or both.

Unfortunately, working on a laptop at a coffee shop appears more idyllic than it really is. In fact, using a laptop in a coffee shop can potentially increase the risk of injury. Not only can sitting in a wooden chair be pretty uncomfortable, but the furniture at coffee shops is designed for hanging out and drinking coffee, not working on a laptop.

Using furniture for its non-intended use can force you into awkward postures, increase stress, and potentially cause injury. You know this if you have ever tried to get work done at a coffee shop; your back and shoulders start to feel tense almost immediately. The coffee shop work station is made up of a chair and a table. There are problems with both, but if you understand some simple biomechanics and make some simple changes the work station can be both comfortable and functional.

Most of the time, the problem with the chair is that the seat pan is too hard, too low, and has the wrong orientation to promote a neutral sitting posture. Sitting low in the chair causes the pelvis to roll back and the lower back to flex. In other words, it causes you to slump. Sitting in a slumped posture increases stress on the lower back, and makes it harder to sit up.

The seat pan, the part of the chair that you sit on, is tilted back slightly with a depression towards the back so the front edge is higher than the back. This ‘butt bucket’ is designed to hold you in the back of the chair and pushes your hips back so you fall into the back rest. Again, this a comfortable position for relaxing and drinking coffee, but not ideal for working on a computer. Finally, sitting on a wooden seat is just uncomfortable.

The problem with the table is that it is above elbow level. To use the keyboard you need to elevate your shoulders and reach up for the keyboard. Since it is hard to hold your hands out and your wrists up over the keyboard, you will drop your wrists onto the edge of the laptop or table for support. Compression of the wrist can not only increase pressure on the nerves of the wrist, but can increase tension in the muscles of the hand and shoulders causing pain. While the desk is too high for the keyboard, it is too low for the monitor. With the monitor well below eye level, you will need to look down to see the screen. Looking down or neck flexion can increase stress on the muscles of the shoulders and neck. The overall effect of working with the laptop is you look like Schroeder from Peanuts hunched over the piano. This is not a good way to work, and pretty quickly you will feel it in your back, neck, shoulders, and wrists.

Fortunately, the coffee shop workstation can be made more comfortable and functional pretty easily. By bringing a pillow and a 3-ring binder with you, you can transform the work station. Most people have heard about lumbar pillows, the round pillows you jam behind your back to try and give your lumbar spine some support. Choose a pillow that optimizes lumbar support such as a couch cushion or a wedge pillow about 2-3 inches thick. Put this pillow on the seat pan and sit on it.

The benefits of this simple adjustment include a more comfortable seating option and the pillow also raises the hips and changes the orientation of the seat pan from a backward tilt to a forward tilt. So instead of your pelvis rolling back and your lumbar spine flexing, you sit up straighter with your body balanced over your pelvis. Sitting taller helps to decrease stress on your lower back and can help you to breathe easier. Sitting taller also helps to decrease the reach up to the keyboard.

Next, place the 3-ring binder under the laptop, with the narrow end facing you. This will put your laptop at an angle with the spacebar on the keyboard lower than the number keys. Positioning the keyboard with a positive tilt does two things: it allows you to work with your wrists straight, and with your head in a more neutral position. When the keyboard has a positive tilt it is easier to keep your wrists straight while typing. By bending your elbows to raise your hands to the keyboard, rather than hovering your hands over a flat keyboard, you decrease the shoulder elevation and reaching movements. Raising the monitor even a few inches helps to decrease neck flexion. Looking more directly at the monitor can help decrease neck and shoulder tension.

So by planning ahead and taking a pillow and binder, you can quickly and easily transform the coffee shop work station into a comfortable and functional work space.

Steve Meagher, PT, CEAS

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