What is ANSI/BIFMA? How Does it Relate to Standing Desks and Treadmill Desks?

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What is ANSI/BIFMA? How Does it Relate to Standing Desks and Treadmill Desks?

What are ANSI/BIFMA Standards and Why Should Anyone Care About Them?

If you shop around for a standing desk, sooner or later you’re likely to come across this discordant acronym ANSI/BIFMA in the marketing literature of numerous office furniture manufacturers—especially those that specialize in selling products to large enterprise, government, and educational institutions. This acronym refers to a not-for-profit, standards-setting body known as the Business + Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association (BIFMA), which operates under the auspices of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), another not-for-profit organization. The highest quality office furniture products are tested by independent laboratories around the world (usually for-profit companies) to the ANSI/BIFMA standards.

Contrary to a very common misconception, neither ANSI or BIFMA is a government agency, although ANSI states that it is comprised of “government agencies, organizations, companies, academic and international bodies, and individuals, representing and serving the diverse interests of more than 270,000 companies and organizations and 30 million professionals worldwide.” It has an annual operating budget of $36M, which it has to spread across countless activities and sub-organizations, like BIFMA, as but one example.

BIFMA, on the other hand, includes as its members and key funding sources the larger office furniture manufacturers in the US, and is based in Grand Rapids, Michigan—the Silicon Valley of the contract furniture industry. Think Steelcase, Herman Miller, Knoll, Haworth, et al.

So what exactly is meant by contract furniture? It’s rather simple, really. Contract just refers to durable business furniture that is designed and tested to actual standards of quality and durability—namely, ANSI/BIFMA standards.

To put this in context, the office furniture industry as a whole sells about $46 billion of goods in the USA each year, of which only 40%, or $18 billion, is sold by the contract office furniture manufacturing industry. Whether it be fixed-height or sit-stand desks, filing cabinets, chairs or cubicle partition panels, these products are typically marketed as “ANSI/BIFMA certified” along with the Standard to which they are certified (e.g. “ANSI/BIFMA X5.5-2014”)

The other 60% of office furniture is sold through retail and online outlets like IKEA, Amazon, and most of the companies whose products we review on this site—without any kind of assurance as to its durability. With rare exceptions, these sellers do not bother having their products tested at an independent laboratory to see if they would meet BIFMA standards for durability. And they have little reason to, given that their buyers likely have never heard the acronym ANSI/BIFMA before, and generally have lower expectations as to their durability.

As always, there are a couple of exceptions—namely iMovR and UpLiftDesk—that offer some standing desk models that are independently BIFMA-tested and certified (see below). They go through the expense of BIFMA testing because more and more corporations, government agencies and educational institutions are buying as much of their office furniture products as they can through e-commerce these days, and checking the BIFMA box is still a pre-requisite for these customers.

What BIFMA Does and Does Not Require in Testing a Standing Desk

testing stability of a desk ansi bifma Under its standards document for sit-stand workstations (ANSI/BIFMA X5.5 – 2014 DESK PRODUCTS), 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.

The independent testing lab that performs BIFMA testing on a sit-stand desk will set up a custom lab experiment to cycle the product thousands of times, usually over a period of one to three weeks depending on the duty cycle of the motors. Robotic sensors and actuators will simulate a user making the desk go up and down repeatedly, making it shake back and forth, and trying to make it tip over. (Check out this video of an iMovR Lander Desk being put through its up-down paces under load at Intertek, a BIFMA testing laboratory, e.g.)

In other words, the lab will continuously torture the desk to try and make it fail the standards. Weaker products will be trashed by the end of the test run, if not failing before the tests are even completed. To be labeled as certified to a specific standard a product must pass all of the tests defined in that standard, i.e. there are no partial certifications.

If there are any electrical components in the desk, BIFMA will require that they be tested to UL (Underwriters Laboratories) standards as well. The classic “shake and bake” testing for seeing if the product catches fire, exudes toxic fumes, explodes or otherwise harms users usually renders the product unusable at the end of the test. This is just part of the cost of the robust certification process.

While a specific height range is not a requirement for a standing desk to be ANSI/BIFMA certified, marketers often conflate BIFMA’s G1 Ergonomic Guidelines with the actual testing standard for the desk itself. The G1 document has ergonomic recommendations for everything from adjustable-height chairs to sitting desks to ‘you-name-it’. Standing desks are recommended to be adjustable from a minimum height of 22″ to a maximum height of 46.5″.  This is supposed to accommodate 90% of the US population based on the 2010 census survey, from the 5th percentile of women to the 95th percentile of men. In contrast, the European standard is 3″ higher than the American, and in our considered estimation is more correct and practical than BIFMA’s prescribed range.

The important thing to understand about the G1 Guidelines is that they are a) not a requirement of any BIFMA product testing standard, and b) published in 2013 when the state of the art in standing desk technology was much more primitive than today, and all the standing desks topped out at this range of adjustment. Many desk manufacturers mistakenly believe, and consequently mislead their customers into believing that the 22″ – 46.5″ height adjustment range is a requirement for BIFMA Certification. It most certainly is not, and in fact only shortchanges customers who would really want to opt for today’s more common 24″-50″ height range desks (or up to 55″ in the case of iMovR’s desks). Bottom line: ANSI/BIFMA X5.5-2014 is the standard for durable “contract grade” furniture, and the G1 ergonomic recommendation document hasn’t kept up with the rapid change of technology in the real world.

How BIFMA Testing Relates to Treadmill Desks

What about treadmill desks, you ask? Well, 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 any 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 primer on UL testing, as well as our article on What Legal Departments Need to Know About Treadmill Desks to learn more about issues related to treadmill desk durability and safety. Like ANSI/BIFMA, UL certification is not government mandated. 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.

The Problems We See with ANSI/BIFMA Standards for Standing Desks

Notwithstanding our respect for the rest of their good work, we’ve written a lot about the deficiencies of BIFMA’s ergonomic recommendations when it comes to adjustable-height desks (and their non-existent recommendations for treadmill desks). 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:

  1. The recommended max 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 standing desks, or sells separately as the Elevon Keyboard Tray—require a steeper angle of the forearm than is possible when sitting, and thus an even greater maximum work surface height is desired.
  2. Many standalone standing desk bases are marketed as ANSI/BIFMA compliant, but this can be misleading. The only way to test a base is to attach a specific desktop to it. A BIFMA testing lab will always request a sample of both the smallest and largest desktops to be sold in any “desk system” and will automatically certify all sizes in between, but there simply isn’t a standard for testing just the base frame on its own. Over the years we’ve seen numerous examples of desk vendors anointing themselves with “our products meet or exceed ANSI/BIFMA standards” when in fact they’ve never actually had their desks tested, e.g. when UpDesk relies solely upon the fact that other desk makers who OEM Linak baseframe components have passed BIFMA testing. Neither ANSI, BIFMA or the Federal Trade Commission have a police force to go around and monitor these marketing claims for accuracy.
  3. When you add a treadmill base step-up 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 compliant desks are supposed to accommodate—ostensibly 6’2″ without a treadmill—can only be 5’8″ tall.  That’s far from the 90th percentile of the general population.
  4. ANSI/BIFMA testing is rigorous, but the resultant certification is awarded on a pass/fail basis. In other words, the lab test will not reveal how the stability or durability of any one desk model compares with any of its peers. That’s what we do when we test desks here in our own labs, and you can read more about that in our primer on Why Some Standing Desks Shake More Than Others. It would save us a lot of time and effort if BIFMA certifications actually included numerical results from their testing, such as the frequency and magnitude of oscillations when testing sideway forces on a standing desk at its quartile heights.

For these reasons, when our experts review desks for WorkWhileWalking & WorkWhileStanding, we always give extra points to desks that can exceed the ANSI/BIFMA ergonomic adjustment range recommendations, especially on the top end. 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 Freedom and Lander desks, can reach as high as 55″. These are empirically going to be the most stable desks at any given height, with or without a treadmill, because of the increased overlap area between the segments of the lifting columns.

You can see how the most popular desks compare in the look-up tables in our Electric Height-Adjustable Desk Comparison Review. You can also see how desks sold with under-desk treadmills compare in our Integrated Treadmill Desk Comparison Review.

Which Standing Desks are ANSI/BIFMA Certified?

If you want the assurance of knowing that the desk you buy has met the rigorous testing criteria of ANSI/BIFMA but don’t want to pay through the nose for the privilege of going through the gauntlet of buying from a multi-tiered contract furniture vendor, there are presently two standing desk models that you can buy online, factory-direct: iMovR’s Lander Desk and UpLiftDesk’s V2 Commercial.

We encourage you to read our individual reviews of these products for all the details but at a high level there is a glaring difference between these two products. The Lander Desk is true state-of-the art, premium technology product—rated the #1 standing desk by every review site that has tested it, as well as by our own expert review staff. Made entirely in the USA with robotic automation it is the best desk we have ever tested in our labs since we first started reviewing sit-stand furniture back in 2013. We’ve reviewed the Lander’s certification report and it clearly passed with flying colors.

In contrast, the UpLift V2 Commercial Desk is built on top of a reinforced version of the Jiecang base, made in China. UpLift’s web site has conflicting information as to whether only the V2 Commercial is ANSI/BIFMA X5.5-2014 certified or the V2 Standard as well. They seem to have conflated the G1 recommended height range with the X5.5 requirements, and so in some places they claim only the V2 Commercial to be “ANSI/BIFMA Certified,” when in fact the height recommendation is not part of the X5.5 Standard at all. To pass BIFMA standards for stability AND the G1 recommended height range UpLift had to lower the V2 Commercial base,  flip the lifting columns upside down and add an unsightly “shin crusher” stabilizer bar connecting the bottom segments of the two desk legs together. Stabilizer bars used to be common on standing desks years ago but users hate them and 95% of standing desk manufacturers thus avoid them in current designs. Seems like a downgrade, not an upgrade, yet this Commercial version costs $99 more.

There is a significant cost difference between the American-made Lander and the UpLift V2 but we do know that iMov’s newly launched Lander Lite desk has brought the prices of these two popular desk lines even closer together. We don’t know if and when iMovR plans to have the Lander Lite BIFMA certified but based on our own lab testing of the prototype there is no question it would pass muster, and without a shin-crushing stabilizer bar or reduced height range.

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 our lab-tested 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.

 

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