The Risks from Working at Low Heights

Who could benefit from using the Jolly Back chair?

All adults working with young children in educational and care settings (teachers, teaching assistants, student teachers, support workers, parent/carer helpers, therapists, dinner staff, and nursery nurses etc) could benefit. In order to fulfil BSEN1729 parts 1 and 2 for children, the following heights of furniture are required in the classroom.

Age (years)1 – 23 – 55 – 77 – 99 – 13
Seat Height (cm)2631353843
Table Height (cm)40 – 4653596471

(N.B. A standard office chair has a minimum seat height of typically 42cm with a seat width and depth of 45cm (minimum). Some “teacher’s office chairs” have a minimum seat height of 38cm but seat widths and depths remain over 45cm).

These low working heights, along with the nature of the tasks required by employees in education automatically set up workplace hazards and increase the risk of injury, such as back, hip and neck pain. Staff working with young children in a school environment are exposed to the following hazardous tasks to varying degrees:

  • Group activities when children are sat on the floor: circle time, register, stories, music, letters and sounds etc. Kneeling, repetitive bending, twisting, leaning over and over-stretching are risk factors for staff. If adults are sat on “high” office chairs, this also poses a risk for pupils developing neck and shoulder pain as they have to look up to see and maintain their teacher’s eye contact. These chairs are often in a worn state, sometimes “made comfortable” by extra cushions from home. In some cases, staff sit on swivel stools without the support of a back rest or handle – bending is therefore required to move it.
    If, as is more common, staff sit on small static children’s chairs, a crouched uncomfortable posture (with knees higher than hips) is adopted. Twisting and over-stretching of the spine, along with hip joint compression are risk factors. The neck and shoulders are also put at risk of injury because, to compensate for this flexed posture, muscles overwork to keep the head upright and hands free to use. It is also worth noting that these children’s chairs are not weight limit tested for adult use.
  • Individual activities when children are working at their (low) tables: spending time with and assisting individual pupils with reading, writing, craft, therapy, computer work, sand/water play, lunch etc. Kneeling, repetitive bending, twisting, leaning over and over-stretching are risk factors as adults ensure they are close to each pupil in order to effectively communicate.
  • Administration activities: considerable time is spent by staff/volunteers on paperwork (writing in home reading diaries, setting homework tasks, marking, writing up pupil assessments, preparing classroom displays and lesson planning etc). Due to limited classroom space, an adult desk is not usually available for use by teaching/support staff. Staff predominantly use either the low children’s desks and accompanying chairs or write on their laps. Both these postures result in the health of their spine being compromised as described above.
  • Class activities when children are working at their (low) tables: adults moving/walking between tables to supervise many pupils. Staff predominantly kneel, squat, bend down or lean over to assist children.
  • Other learning environments: lessons outside, learning in other classrooms/hall, assemblies, extra-curricular activities, school plays and rehearsals. Adults often sit down on children’s plastic chairs or wooden benches for these activities which again causes crouching and poor spinal alignment as described above.

All of the above hazardous tasks can be alleviated by use of a Jolly Back chair. It should be noted however, that risk assessments should continue to take place in order to identify the needs of individual employees.

Back Health training may also be advantageous for adults who work with young children. This could provide a forum to discuss and suggest solutions for employees, who are confronted by challenges associated with low working height within their workplace. A Primary School Back Care Policy has been written which offers practical tips to help pupils and staff to maintain the health of their spine.

The potential to have a positive impact on reducing back pain is huge. According to the Find My School Directory, in England and Wales there are circa 18 000 primary schools, 2000 independent schools and 29 000 day nurseries/pre-schools. Members of staff who work with children are incredibly important and should be valued and respected. It is not acceptable that they “accept back pain as part of the job”. The overwhelming majority do not even discuss their back problems because of this, often only reporting them when things are unbearable. Awareness needs to be raised about back health being of such importance and that practical solutions are available.

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