CALGARY, Alta. – Ergonomics is not the oldest science in the world, but its importance has grown significantly in recent years due to the rise of back pain sufferers.
It’s no secret that truck drivers are high-risk candidates for back pain, but ergonomic advancements have created seats that rival any king’s throne. Ergonomic seats begin with the chair and vehicle controls, but the overall application of the science is to create an entire environment that improves posture and reduces the load and stress on the body.
In Alberta during 2005, 25% of all time-lost claims reported to the Workers’ Compensation Board of Alberta were a result of back pain. According to the organization those numbers resulted in 9,500 claims for a total of $38 million.
“Drivers recognize the importance of an ergonomic seat and do not make light of the subject on the decision process when purchasing a new seat. When purchasing a seat the customer considers comfort, features, cost and application,” explained Melissa Turner, marketing with National Seating.
Fleet owners take into consideration the return on investment. They consider if the purchase of the new seat will benefit the driver and the company in the long run.
“The drivers are critical to the success of any trucking company, providing them with a suitable seat is essential for success,” added Turner.
Don’t get too comfortable
Sitting for long periods of time can strain the back because it constantly compresses the spine. From a health perspective the long-term comfort of the seat is important to improve the attentiveness of a driver.
“The seat does need to feel comfortable; it should support the back of the driver,” explained Wilhelm Sturhan, president of Knoedler Manufacturers. “A seat is one of the most important items to purchase on a truck, it influences the health of the driver, day-by-day and long term.”
Comfort can be achieved through back support, but also in how the seat is positioned. Many seats on the market now boast ergonomic features, which allow drivers to easily reach the controls in their cabs.
“The easier it is to adjust the seat, the better the driver feels on the road. It’s best if the driver can adjust the seat in the ‘comfort’ position, which means that the controls should be in easy reach,” noted Sturhan. “Too many adjustments are confusing, and allow for ‘maladjustments’ and hence the discomfort.”
A seat for everyone
Many seat manufacturers offer a varying line of seats that range from a few hundred dollars up into the thousands. Often choosing the right seat will come down to personal preference, and a person’s body type can play a deciding factor.
“When buying a seat, the height and weight of a person do have some importance,” noted Sturhan. “Generally the suspension systems, industry-wide, are designed for the 95th percentile male and hence the maximum weight of a person should be around 290 lbs. There are suspensions available, also from Knoedler, that can handle up to 400 lbs. Those are usually considerably more expensive.”
Air suspensions for seats have been around since the late 1960s and operate best when the suspension is raised enough so that the system operates properly during driving conditions.
Many times with shorter people, this minimum adjustment is not possible, because the operator can not properly reach the pedals.
“For this scenario, Knoedler developed the Low-Rider, which allows especially shorter persons to find the optimal suspension adjustment, while being in a low riding position,” commented Sturhan. “The Low-Rider starts very low, but still allows six inches of stroke upwards. For taller persons, this problem does not exist, and there the recommendation is to use a standard seat-height configuration.”
For some consumers the bottom line of a seat rests in the part you sit on. As with pillows some prefer softer and fluffier, while others like firmness and support. When it comes to choosing a seat, there are different options to rest your bottom.
“Many times the seat cushions are not thick enough or wide enough and today’s demographics show that a wide seat is preferred in over-the-road truck applications,” stated Sturhan. “Knoedler offers seats in narrow (standard format) at 19-inches, as well as wide seat cushions across the product offerings. Knoedler’s higher end product has a minimum standard width of 23-inches.”
The broadest ranges of seats are available for Class 8 trucks. Manufacturers offer the big rigs full product lines and universal mountings that fit into most commercially available trucks.
Other trucks owners however, may have to pay a bit more attention to the product before planning on settling in behind the wheel.
“There are straight trucks that do not always have air-supply. For those applications, the driver or fleet is best served by using self-contained air seats,” explained Sturhan. “Those seats include an integrated compressor unit in the suspension unit, and provide the comfort of the air-suspension seat. Those seats are just as easy to install, and come in 12V or 24V configurations.”
Smaller trucks, without the luxury of space inside the cab also have to keep an eye on the type of product purchased.
“Other types of vocational and smaller trucks have smaller cabs, and hence need non-suspension seats, or Low-Profile suspension seats for good comfort,” added Sturhan. “Those Low-Profile seats are extremely compact and are limited in overall suspension stroke to fit into the applications.”
Whenever a used truck is purchased it is recommended that a new seat be installed.
However there are also visible signs that a seat’s life expectancy has passed, like significant deterioration to the foam or fabric, or if the driver is experiencing discomfort.
“This depends on the personal care of the seat and driver’s personal habits. If the seat is maintained it should last longer than the truck,” commented Turner.
“National Seating also offers a refurbishing kit that allows the driver to reupholster their seat. This kit includes a seat back cover and upholstered seat cushion.”
Sometimes even if a seat is in good working order, new technology comes along to offer a better option.
“New and improved features would be another reason like the BackCycler,” noted Turner.
“The BackCycler cyclic inflation and deflation of an air bladder behind the driver’s lower back provides long lasting comfort. Other features are the extended seat slides or additional width for examples.”