Standing up for employee health

  • Article by: JACKIE CROSBY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 25, 2011 - 9:49 PM

An Eagan company has a new computer station that lets workers easily switch between sitting or standing at their desks.

John Tolkinen did a final inspection on an Ergotron StyleView EMR Cart and prepared it for shipping. The EMR cart, short for electronic medical records is used by nurses, doctors in a variety of medical settings.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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Joel Hazzard rattles off statistics associated with what he calls "sitting disease" in rapid fire.

We sit an average of 7.7 hours a day, he says, when you add up time in the car, at our desks, in meetings, in front of the computer and at the kitchen table. He quotes research from the Mayo Clinic and the American Cancer Society that shows that the sedentary style can cut years from your life.

"Sitting disease is as bad for you as smoking," he concludes.

Hazzard, CEO of Eagan-based Ergotron, says all of this as he stands behind the company's latest innovation, a computer stand that lets workers easily switch between sitting or standing at their desks. He's banking that the device will be a big sales driver for the $191 million company, whose bread-and-butter is moveable computer stands used in hospitals and clinics.

"We're scaling up for it," he said during a recent tour of the headquarters and warehouse near Interstate 494 and Hwy. 55. "We're creating market awareness. Most people don't know today how bad sitting is for you."

The computer stand, which Ergotron calls the WorkFit, uses a patented glide system and a mounted base that can support a laptop, multiple monitors and other weight variations with simple adjustments. At about $400, Hazzard believes it's priced in the sweet spot in a marketplace where ergonomically adjustable desks sell for $700 to $3,000.

Ergotron has "seeded" more than 15 major corporations in the U.S., Asia and Europe involved in manufacturing, banking, software and health care. Putting 25 to 50 units in the workplace for a free trial period has been a successful way to sell employees and managers on the benefits, Hazzard said.

At Bloomington-based HealthPartners, 34 workers in the wellness department tested Ergotron's sit-stand desk for about seven weeks earlier this year to evaluate how the workstation affected back pain, mood and work performance.

About half said back and neck pain was reduced; three quarters said they felt "healthier" and "more energized;" two-thirds felt "more productive."

Kathy Jackson, a HealthPartners health management consultant who participated in the study, said standing up helped her focus better.

"Your posture is different, your breathing is different, you don't just plunk down into a chair," she said. "I felt more energetic even after the workday when I went home. I wanted to go for a bike ride or for a walk."

Ergotron was established in 1982 and holds 37 patents on digital display and mounting products. It has been on a growth trend since merging in 2002 with sister company Constant Force Technology, which designed and manufactured stands and accessories and branded them for Dell, Hewlett-Packard and others.

Sales have increased more than threefold from $58 million in 2004, said Hazzard, who joined the company in 2002. About 280 people work at the Eagan headquarters, including all research and development. With factories and warehouses in the United States, China and Holland, the company shipped close to 4 million products last year.

In December, Ergotron was acquired by Nortek, a publicly traded company in Providence, R.I., for $280 million. It operates as an independent subsidiary.

Ergotron's best-selling product is a height-adjustable stand for desktop monitors. Launched about eight years ago, Ergotron has now shipped 15 million around the world. Similar market penetration of the WorkFit workstation could mean $400 million a year in sales, Hazzard said.

Within the next few months, the WorkFit station will be sold to consumers on amazon.com and elsewhere, under the Omnitech brand. But the company's main focus is on selling to major global corporations, leveraging partnerships with Dell, HP and other well-known computer manufacturers and distributors who see Ergotron's devices as a margin-boosting accessory.

With CEOs increasingly seeing employee health as a bottom-line issue, he believes the WorkFit is timed to grab market share.

Standing can increase workplace productivity by 12 to 18 percent, he said, citing ergonomic studies. And some research shows that standing at work can burn an extra 150 calories an hour.

"What kind of wellness program does that?" Hazzard said. "You're moving people from a high-risk group to a low-risk. You're investing in people. You're always investing capital, but human capital -- people -- is very important."

Jackie Crosby • 612-673-7335

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