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Exercise balls, treadmill desks not designed for ergonomic purposes

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Exercise balls and treadmill desks might encourage movement among sedentary workers, but sources say they're not ergonomic and don't belong in the workplace.

Ergonomics experts say employers regularly ask whether exercise ball chairs should be allowed in the workplace, adding that they're often recommended to employees by physical therapists and fitness coaches.

“We'd love to believe that a $30 (stability) ball will replace a $750 task chair, but it doesn't,” said Tom Hilgen, Charlotte, North Carolina-based senior vice president and ergonomics practice leader at Willis North America Inc. To be considered ergonomic, a chair needs to be adjustable — “height, seat depth, lumbar support and so on.”

Exercise balls, which aren't adjustable, expose workers to musculoskeletal risks, experts said.

With an exercise ball chair, workers “end up reaching down for a keyboard or reaching up over the edge of the desk for a keyboard,” said Rachel Michael, Midway, Utah-based senior consultant at Aon Risk Solutions. If workers can't adjust their seat, employers “have to start adding money” for height-adjustable desks and keyboard trays.

Most workers don't have the core strength to maintain the necessary balance and posture to use an exercise ball chair, Ms. Michael said.

Even if workers say they'll alternate between a ball and an ergonomic chair, it's not a good idea, Mr. Hilgen said, noting that he's seen cases where people get fatigue and fall off or trip over the balls.

“They do roll,” he said. “Most of us are in offices with space constraints. Working and walking in the proximity of these objects is not very practical.”

Experts say they advise employers to write policies banning exercise balls from the workplace.

Another tool ergonomics experts warn employers about is the treadmill desk.

These weren't developed with ergonomics in mind, Ms. Michael said. Rather, they're a “response to the obesity epidemic.”

Treadmill desks can be a liability, she said, recalling a claim filed by a woman who was injured while walking on one — in high heels.

Ms. Michael said employers that do want to offer treadmill desks should consider a system where workers — wearing “reasonable shoes” — sign up to use it for 15 to 30 minutes while taking a phone call.