Ergonomics at work: creating a safer environment at home and in the office

April 14, 2022

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By Lisa Orr, senior human factors consultant

The rapid shift to work-from-home arrangements during the COVID-19 pandemic meant that many remote work setups were quickly put together without long-term considerations in mind.

Given that two years have passed since the start of the pandemic, now is a good time to revisit these — what once were seen as temporary — arrangements. That’s where the principles of ergonomics come in.

Whether an employee is working from home, in the office, or following a hybrid model — creating a safe and effective work environment is essential. Ergonomics is the study of human characteristics and the application of this knowledge to design tasks, equipment, and environments to ensure an appropriate match. The goal of ergonomics is to improve performance and protect an individual’s health and safety.

At home versus in the office

If you historically worked in an office environment, you’re likely not a stranger to ergonomics programs. But the standards developed for the office are not always easily transferable as the spaces are different. Some individuals don’t have an adequate amount of space to devote to a home office set up. Others may be sharing space with children or elderly parents. Not to mention, those with special accommodations due to injuries or disabilities in the office don’t always have those same options at home.

Musculoskeletal disorders at work

These factors can lead to awkward working postures and increased repetitive motion, both of which are occupational risk factors for developing a work-related musculoskeletal disorder (MSD). MSDs, if not diagnosed and treated early, can be severe. According to OSHA’s $afety Pays estimator, the cost of one carpal tunnel syndrome case can be as much as $64,953, including both direct and indirect costs.

Further, our recent experience concludes that when employees begin working from home, we see fewer numbers of claims reported. This is especially true for those in the fall/slip/trip and strike/struck categories. But the claims that are being reported — especially the repetitive motion/cumulative trauma types of claims — tend to be more severe.

Common mistakes employees make

In setting up both an at-home and in-the-office work environment, there are several factors that aren’t always considered — which primarily stem off the assumption that all employees have a dedicated office space and aren’t using their laptops from their bed, floor or couch. From our experience, we’ve witnessed:

  • Worksurfaces, both desks and kitchen tables, that are too high. This can encourage typing with raised shoulders, bent wrists that are resting on the front edge of the worksurface, or both.
  • Laptop screens and monitors that are positioned too low or off to the side — encouraging bent and twisted neck postures.
  • Perching, or leaning forward for long periods while working. This could be due to any number of reasons, including poorly fitting chairs or an inappropriately positioned computer setup.
  • Feet unsupported by the floor or a footrest.

Next steps

To help reduce the risk of MSDs, among other related injuries, the first step is to revisit your ergonomics program. Questions to consider asking:

  1. Do you have an ergonomics program in place? If so, is it current and does it address processes for those permanently working from home, from the office, and/or following a hybrid model?
  2. Does your company have measures in place for educating all employees in ergonomics and perhaps encouraging self-assessments of workstations?
  3. If you’ve remodeled your corporate offices during the pandemic, have you considered providing additional training to ensure that employees know how to adjust their new equipment?
  4. For home-based employees, how are you prepared to assist them with their set up?

Individual ergonomic evaluations can be performed remotely, and often, many adjustments can be made during the evaluation with the employee’s existing furniture. For employees following a hybrid work model, ergonomic and computer equipment that was designed for travel may be beneficial.

The content of this blog was originally discussed on Tuesday, April 12 at the 2022 RIMS Conference & Exhibition, alongside Dawn Watkins, director integrated disability management at Los Angeles Unified School District.

For more, listen to our podcast.

Tags: Claims, Employee, Employees, employer, employers, Ergonomics, integrated, musculoskeletal disorder, OSHA, Remote workers, risk services, Training, View on people, View on performance, Work from home