The safety of drivers dominates managers’ working lives yet duty of care is not always concerned with precarious life-or-death issues – choosing cars that are ergonomically sound might actually have more effect on many employees than that last Euro NCAP star.
Few drivers consider the long-term comfort of their seat. Most would rather have something that they look good in or that can accommodate the kids and all their paraphernalia. Fleet managers, on the other hand, want something that does 60mpg and has low servicing costs.
But the comfort and the ergonomics of a car are important and the two need to be balanced. A car might have soft, enveloping seats but if they are not ergonomically sound then they could cause pain and problems over the long term.
Another model might boast seats designed for the perfect back position that drivers find uncomfortable. Ensuring the driver sits in an environment that is not only comfortable but healthy can avoid chronic back pain and consequent long-term absence.
According to a survey carried out by the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, more than half of business car drivers say they have suffered trouble with their lower back in the last 12 months.
The cost to business is huge – according to the Clinical Standards Advisory Group, 50 million working days are lost in the UK every year due to back pain, at a cost to the economy of £5 billion. That equates on average to £200 for every employee.
Research from Loughborough University suggests that absence due to back pain is six times more likely for those who drive more than four hours a day. With the average distance travelled by car per person rising (by 1% between 1995 and 2005), fleets could face a diminishing workforce and a rise in costs for replacement drivers if the issue is not taken seriously.
Millions of pounds are sunk into the development of each car solely to ensure that drivers will find seats ergonomically sound.
A straw poll of drivers is likely to bring up certain marques that are noted for their comfortable seats. Here at Fleet News, they include Mercedes, Volvo and Peugeot.
Volvo has an 11-strong team whose sole task is to develop seats. Team head Malcolm Resare says: ‘The driver must find the seat comfortable on both long and short journeys.It must also be designed to suit all kinds of male and female drivers, whether they are short, tall, light or heavy.
It must be attractive in appearance, comply with the highest standards of safety and ergonomics, and keep its fresh appearance.
‘Development is a process involving many loops – we test as we go and modify the design accordingly. Then we test again, modify again – and repeat the procedure as often as it takes.’
Mercedes-Benz has a dedicated high-tech computer set up that uses prosthetic ‘derrières’ to measure the pressure points on its front seats. Advanced sensors pick up hotspots so that engineers can fine-tune the design.
A spokesman for Peugeot says its design teams work to criteria that define the level of comfort offered, such as amounts of ‘give’ in materials and pressure pooint levels, as well as recommendations on seat frame, shape of seat, layout and type of materials to be used.
The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy has a set of guidelines entitled ‘Take the Pain out of Driving’ that explain the best way to stay comfy and healthy on the move.
It points out that there is no ‘best’ car to pick – requirements for a woman of 5ft 3in differ considerably from those for a man of 6ft or more. But the guidelines should ensure a particular car is suitable.
Once the car arrives, there are several right and wrong ways to sit to avoid discomfort.
According to a team of physiotherapists and ergonomists at Loughborough University, any posture can lead to discomfort if it is held for too long. It is important therefore to change position frequently.
Ultimately, the problem is that there is no ‘Euro NCAP’ for ergonomics. One body’s ideal seat is another’s torture rack – carmakers can only hope for the best compromise. So it is up to drivers to help themselves. The guidelines printed below could be a start.
How to adjust your chair