Petaluma’s Workrite Ergonomics sit-stands by its ergonomic products

Sales of Workrite’s adjustable height workstations are increasing at the rate of 30 percent a year.|

A decade ago, some business customers jokingly referred to the new office furniture made by Petaluma’s Workrite Ergonomics as silly desks that go up and down.

But in 2011, medical experts declared the office chair a potential hazard. Soon after, sales of sit-stand workstations began to soar.

“That was the best thing that ever happened to our industry,” said Workrite President Charlie Lawrence.

Sales of Workrite’s adjustable height workstations are increasing at the rate of 30 percent a year, Lawrence said. Such growth shows no signs of waning and seems comparable to the company’s often bigger competitors, he said.

The demand helps explain why annual revenues at the 25-year-old company are expected to approach $100 million this June, compared to $40 million four years ago.

Ergonomic experts say sit-stand desks are becoming a workplace phenomenon.

“This is a tsunami,” said Kathy Burwell, a Mill Valley occupational therapist who consults for the County of Sonoma and such companies as Industrial Light and Magic, the San Francisco movie visual effects producer, and global insurance giant Allianz, formerly Fireman’s Fund.

The adjustable desks represent another chapter in the story of how office workers over the past three decades have adapted to the age of the personal computer. The workstations allow an employee to type at a keyboard or perform other tasks while sitting or standing.

Some companies, especially those seeking in-demand tech workers, see the sit-stand desks as one more perk for attracting talent.

However, Burwell and other experts say the adjustable workstations aren’t a panacea for overcoming the effects of physical inactivity or poor eating habits.

Office workers still can’t stay for hours in one position, whether on their feet or in a chair. And the sit-stand desks offer benefits only when employees get proper training and use them.

“You don’t have to stand,” Burwell tells office workers, “but you do have to move.”

Workrite is located in a business park off Lakeville Highway. It began in 1991 in a Marin County garage when three partners made their first wrist rests and other ergonomic products.

First based in Novato, the company opened a manufacturing facility in 1994 in Rohnert Park and consolidated all its operations to Petaluma in 2001.

In 1998, the founders sold the company, and in 2007 it was purchased by a private equity firm, Wind Point Partners in Chicago. Since then, Workrite has been a division of another business owned by Wind Point, furniture component manufacturer Knape & Vogt, which is based in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Last month, Workrite announced its acquisition of Toronto-based ISE, which also makes workstations and other ergonomic products. The purchase, for which terms weren’t disclosed, will provide Workrite an East Coast distribution center and will expand its sales force to further boost workstation sales, Lawrence said.

The company has about ?100 workers in Petaluma, plus a sales force of 30 around North America. The ISE acquisition added another 55 workers.

Before the workstations, the company’s big product was the Banana Board, a keyboard platform with slide-out pieces that allows for mouse placement to the right or left of the keyboard.

Along with keyboard platforms, Workrite products include computer monitor mounts and LED desk lights. But about 60 percent of its sales come from the sit-stand workstations. It was among the first companies to make such furniture, with its first “electric table” introduced in 1999.

It now faces competition in the adjustable desk market from such office furniture giants as Herman Miller, Steelcase and Knoll. But Workrite officials like to say that nobody else knows ergonomic products like they do because it’s all they do.

One of the company’s strengths is the speed with which it can deliver products, Lawrence said. The workstations are made in Petaluma rather than outside the country, which means customers typically can receive smaller orders of desks within 10 business days.

The units’ motorized legs come from Denmark and screw up and down when raising the desktop. The electronic controls and switches come from Belgium and the brackets and feet from Asia.

A Workrite sit-stand station and monitor mount together cost $850 to $950, not including installation, Lawrence said.

This year, Workrite expects to sell about 75,000 such workstations. Apple has been its biggest customer, Lawrence said, purchasing roughly 20,000 sit-stand workstations in the last five years.

The popularity of the sit-stand desk forever changed five years ago when James Levine, a physician and researcher with the Mayo Clinic based in Rochester, Minn., began announcing his research on the dangers of physical inactivity. Much of his concern focused on the office chair and the couch with a TV.

“Excessive sitting is a lethal activity,” Levine told the New York Times Magazine in 2011.

“Get Up!,” Levine’s 2014 book, includes the subtitle, “Why Your Chair Is Killing You & What You Can Do About It.”

Other researchers raised similar concerns. A statement from the American Heart Association in 2013 included the warning that “physical inactivity is about as bad for you as smoking.” Soon media outlets published stories proclaiming that “sitting is the new smoking.”

On the Mayo Clinic website, a Levine article explains that sitting for long periods has been linked to obesity, increased blood pressure and abnormal cholesterol levels. It “also seems to increase the risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer.”

While inactivity is widely seen as the problem, not everyone is convinced that sit-stand desks are the answer.

Cochrane, a London-based independent network of researchers, in March released its examination of existing research on the new furniture. It concluded that benefits from adjustable workstations remain unproven.

The organization called for further research and said those considering the desks “should be aware of the limitations of the current evidence base in demonstrating health benefits.”

Nonetheless, sit-stand desks remain the fastest growing segment in the office furniture industry, said Kathryn Thompson, CEO and a partner of Thompson Research Group in Nashville, Tenn. Thompson, an analyst who covers the industry, predicted the adjustable desk sales will see healthy double-digit growth for the next few years.

One reason is that when one worker at an office gets a sit-stand desk, his colleagues often want one, too.

“The people who use them love them,” she said.

Mark Vettraino, a physician and ergonomics expert who consults for Workrite and other companies, maintained that spending less time in chairs is also good for the back.

“You’ve got a third less compression on the spine when you’re standing,” said Vettraino, an expert in spinal biomechanics and president of the Atlanta-based Task Group International. Also, the forces on the spine are more evenly distributed when standing than sitting.

However, he said, too many people lack enough training to produce lasting benefits from the adjustable desks. Six months after workers receive the new workstations, “a good percentage of them stop using them.”

Typically such workers revert to sitting and spend little, if any, time standing at the desk.

Even so, Vettraino and Burwell predicted more companies will keep buying such desks. As the cost narrows between sit-stand and fixed workstations, many businesses will buy adjustable models when replacing their old desks.

Also, maintenance staffs typically must reconfigure and custom fit a fixed workstation whenever an employees moves across the room or a new worker enters the office. With the adjustable desks, such personalization can happen with the touch of a button.

Workrite’s Lawrence estimated that adjustable desks now make up only 5 percent of the workstations in today’s offices.

“That means there’s still lots of growth opportunities,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or

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