If you shop around for a standing desk you’re likely to come across these discordant initials in the marketing literature of numerous desk manufacturers, especially those that specialize in selling products to large enterprise, government, and educational institutions. This acronym is the shorthand way of referring to a standards-setting body known as the Business + Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association (BIFMA), which is a subgroup under the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). It includes as its members and key funding source the larger office furniture manufacturers in the US, and is based in Grand Rapids, Michigan—the “Silicon Valley” of the office furniture industry where everyone from Steelcase to iMovR bases the bulk of their production and supply chain vendors.
BIFMA is an important group in that it conducts product testing and sets minimum standards for the safety and proper operation of these products. The annual US market for office furniture is currently about ten billion dollars in size. Approximately 11% of that, or $1.1 billion, is comprised of desks and tables. The industry has been gradually ceding market share to low-cost, Chinese imports, although the bulk of these products are still made in the US.
Under its standards document (called ANSI/BIFMA X5.5 – 2014 DESK PRODUCTS if you’re interested) the organization discusses tests for “Top Loading, Load Ease, Lock Mechanism, Extendible Element or Roll-Out Shelf Cycle, Out Stop, Rebound, Racking, Leg Strength, Horizontal and Vertical Adjustment, Stability, Cycle Testing for Receding Doors, Interlock, Drop Test for Receding Door, and Unit Drop.” In their own words, “This standard specifies acceptance levels to help ensure reasonable safety and performance independent of construction materials, manufacturing processes, mechanical designs, or aesthetic designs.”
OK, so much for furniture geek speak, what does this standard really boil down to when it comes to standing desks and treadmill desks?
Answering the second part of the question is easy: Despite their increasing popularity in the large enterprise, BIFMA has no standards whatsoever for treadmill desks. Quality treadmill desks conform to fairly robust standards for material, system performance, and electrical safety under specific UL testing requirements (and international equivalents), though these requirements include no specifics about the desk itself, just the treadmill. It is important to note that the government does not require products to be UL tested, although many retailers will avoid untested products, and large institutional buyers will avoid purchasing products that aren’t UL tested to reasonably-current standards. We refer the reader to our article on What Legal Departments Need to Know About Treadmill Desks to learn more about that. The incentive for a manufacturer to pay the significant fees for performing UL testing on their products is that a) some customers won’t consider buying their products without it, and b) if they should lose a product liability lawsuit over something like, say, an electrical fire, they may be subjected to treble damages if their product was not UL-tested.
Standing desks are tested to make sure they are adjustable from a minimum height of 22″ to a maximum height of 46.5″. This is supposed to accommodate 90% of the US population, from the 5th percentile of women to the 95th percentile of men. In addition to obvious things like making sure the feet of the desk don’t interfere with where the user would stand, and that the materials used are considered safe, BIFMA tests for desk stability and tipping risk. They do not test for electrical safety, which is typically under UL testing for power supplies and other circuit boards.
Notwithstanding our respect for the rest of their good work, we’ve written a lot about the deficiencies of BIFMA’s adjustable-height desk standards. To put it bluntly, nothing has ever changed in the standards to ameliorate our concerns with the outdated height range targets. It boils down to these things:
The minimum max top height of 46.5″ is insufficient for taller individuals to reach the keyboard while keeping their hands in an ergonomically-proper working position. This is especially true when installing an under-desk keyboard tray. Moreover, proper ergonomics for typing while standing (or walking on a treadmill desk)—using something like the SteadyType™ Keyboard Tray that iMovR builds into their Everest, Olympus and Denali desks—require a steeper angle of the forearm than is possible when sitting, and thus even more desk surface height is desired.
Many standing desks use telescoping bases that are configurable to accommodate different size tabletops. Certain products may have been tested with a 48″ wide top and passed the BIFMA stability tests, but if sold with a 72″ or wider desktop may be quite unstable at the upper end of the height range, because of the added mass. We see this all the time in our testing labs despite brochure claims of the ANSI-BIFMA compliance of their bases. These desks typically have three-segment linear actuator legs, and at the top end of the height range the overlap area between these tube segments becomes very small. Instability ensues. Therefore every inch of upper reach adds to the overall stability of the desk, even if the user never sets their desk to the top end of its physical range.
In the real world users do not place their desktop items evenly along the centerline between the two legs of their standing desks. Users tend to place more weight to the back of the desk in the form of edge-clamped monitor arms, computers, and printers that tend to sit along the back edge. This creates “side loading” on the linear actuators that can burn out or shut down smaller motors. The IKEA Bekant (not ANSI/BIFMA tested, to our knowledge) is a vivid example of a very popular standing desk that appears to have had a spate of problems in the field due to this issue. We have seen desks from manufactures that claim to submit all their products for robust ANSI/BIFMA testing come through our test labs that would potentially either tip over too easily or create too much load on the motors in a typical backloaded situation. These testing standards may be in need of a second look, or perhaps BIFMA needs to enforce against false claims by manufacturers who claim “all” their products are tested, when they may not have been.
When you add a treadmill base step up height to the height of a treadmill desk user (5″ step-up height for something like the iMovR ThermoTread GT or Rebel 1000, 6″ for a LifeSpan TR1200 treadmill desk, e.g.), all bets are off. Now the tallest individual that ANSI/BIFMA certified desks are can accommodate—ostensibly 6’2″ without a treadmill—can only be 5’8″ tall. That’s far from the 90th percentile of the general population.
For these reasons, when our experts review desks for WorkWhileWalking and WorkWhileStanding we always give extra points to desks that can exceed the ANSI/BIFMA standard. The industry minimum these days, excepting some Chinese-made products, seems to be no less than 48″. Better, but not great. The best desks can reach at least 50″ high, and those that can accommodate height extenders, such as the iMovR Everest and Elite desks, can reach as high as 55″. These are going to be the most stable desks, with or without a treadmill. You can see how the most popular desks compare in the look-up tables in our Electric Height-Adjustable Desk Comparison Review and Manual Height-Adjustable Desk Comparison Review. You can also see how the desks that are sold together with under-desk treadmills compare in our Integrated Treadmill Desk Comparison Review.
The Bottom Line
While some purchasing agents consider ANSI-BIFMA compliance a minimally-required check-off item on their punch list for buying desks for their organizations, in our experience it’s a starting point, not a conclusion. Be sure to read reviews or, better yet, do your own testing, to make sure that taller individuals and treadmill desk users can also use these products at the appropriate height without suffering from ergonomic or stability issues.
Please fill in your mailbox information