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Employers Beware: Ergonomic Challenges of Telecommuting During COVID-19

Originally featured in the Autumn 2020 issue of the Leader magazine.

By Sabrina N. Williams, Ph.D.
Columbia Southern University

In the wake of the COVID-19 global health pandemic, telecommuting has become the “new normal” for many in the American workforce. As states and local municipalities continue to implement stay-at-home and safer-at-home orders, telecommuting remains an integral part of many employers’ efforts to reduce the transmission of the virus in the workplace. Permitting employees to work from home during the novel coronavirus outbreak offers many benefits as it allows for continuity of operations in some businesses that might otherwise be shutdown. Telecommuting also allows asymptomatic employees to continue working without putting other workers’ health at risk. Likewise, telecommuting benefits employees who may be at a higher risk of contracting the virus due to underlying health conditions.

For employees, the option of working from home also comes with the convenience of working comfortably in pajamas or loungewear without having to deal with a daily commute, office politics, or the typical office distractions. Although these conveniences may seem ideal, transitioning to a remote work environment does not come without some challenges, especially when employees are required to setup their home workstations. Incorporating ergonomics during the setup of a remote workstation is vital as failure to do so can mean the difference between a positive and a negative experience for employers and employees.

Converting Your Home into a Working Environment

When millions were abruptly forced from their workplaces earlier this year, many employees left their offices with little more than their personal belongings, a laptop and a work assignment in hand. Purchasing ergonomically designed furnishings was likely not a forethought, since many employees (or employers) weren’t certain when or if employees would return to the office. Most workers simply used what was available at home. Kitchens, spare bedrooms and dining rooms have been transformed into temporary workspaces. 

While the office setting might have been designed with ergonomic considerations—such as dual computer monitors, chairs with lumbar support and height-adjustable desks—these features are likely not the norm in the remote work setting. Yes, it may be convenient for employees to use what they have readily available, but a remote workstation might be far from ergonomically safe if it is not arranged properly. 

With little consideration for ergonomics or the benefits of a well-designed office environment, some employees are now working with their necks bent over laptops for extended periods, sitting in chairs that are too low while working with their arms and wrists resting on tables which are too high. 

Working remotely under such circumstances for a short period of time, although not ideal, might not cause long-term ergonomic injuries; however, with the extension of stay-at-home orders, not utilizing an ergonomic workstation design could potentially lead to chronic injuries for employees and unanticipated expenses for employers.

Ergonomics and the Remote Worker

Ergonomics is the scientific discipline that uses information from human capabilities and performance capacities to fit the needs of individual users in the design of products, tools and equipment. When used in the design of the workplace, ergonomics can be beneficial in arranging tools and equipment in a way that allows people to work efficiently and safely. 

Likewise, a properly designed workstation should be arranged to fit the user in a way that allows a task to be performed without risk of injury or illness. Setting up a workstation in a manner that promotes good posture is an important aspect of telecommuting. Employees might find the prospect of working from their comfortable couch or bed all day rather tempting; however, these are not optimal places to perform work because of the undue strain placed on the neck and lower back. 

Unfortunately, many employees may not think about proper body mechanics until they are already experiencing discomfort or other symptoms. Lack of good posture for a short period of time might have minimal impact beyond a stiff neck or sore muscles, yet chronic exposure while working in a discomforting position can lead to the development of musculoskeletal disorders such as tendonitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, low back pain and neck pain. 

Non-COVID Related Consequences

Throughout the pandemic, employees have constantly been reminded to wear face masks, wash their hands and practice social distancing to reduce the likelihood of transmitting the coronavirus to others. Yet, few messages have been relayed regarding what employees should do to prevent exposing themselves to the hazards caused by poor ergonomic habits.

Where are the PSAs reminding remote employees to arrange devices—such as the monitor, keyboard and mouse—so they are accessible without overreaching or straining? Where are the placards showing remote employees how to setup their chair for a comfortable seated posture with their lower back well-supported and their feet either resting on the floor or on a foot rest? Where are the demonstrations explaining how to adjust the table, desk and/or other work surfaces to a height that allows both the placement of a chair underneath with adequate knee clearance and the use of a keyboard while maintaining the elbows at a 90-degree angle?

A remote workspace might not look unsafe or pose an imminent danger to safety and health, but over time, not practicing proper ergonomics in the home remote work setting can prove to be harmful. Hours spent working hunched over laptops can result in symptoms ranging from wrist pains due to typing with the wrist flexed, to lower back pain from sitting with the lower back unsupported to neck pain from looking down at the computer monitor. 

Employers’ Responsibilities to Remote Workers

In compliance with the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) of 1970, employers have the responsibility of providing employees a safe and healthful work environment that is free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious injury. Does this responsibility extend to remote workers? 

At the time of the passage of the OSH Act, the concept of telecommuting was just starting to be recognized but with a slightly different connotation than we have come to understand in the 21st century. Although it is not likely the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) will conduct in-home workplace inspections to address safety and health issues, employers may still be impacted financially by in-home accidents that might be covered by workers’ compensation insurance when employees work remotely. Therefore, it is important for employers to provide the necessary resources to maintain, not only the productivity levels of their remote employees, but also their health and safety.

Promoting Proper Ergonomic Practices

Flexible work arrangements and remote work may indeed become the norm for the foreseeable future. Some employers may choose to allow employees continue working remotely even beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. To address the needs of this new telecommuting workforce, employers must work with employees to ensure their home working environment is ergonomically safe. 

Employers can manage and mitigate injury risks and promote proper ergonomic practices by educating employees on the benefits of ergonomics, encouraging early reporting of symptoms, and providing the resources necessary to assess their remote work settings. Education should focus on the proper setup of workstations and equipment and the importance of proper musculoskeletal support. 

In addition, employees should be knowledgeable of ergonomic risk factors, which will make them more aware if symptoms such as numbness, tingling, swelling and joint pain begin to occur. 

Under normal circumstances, employees would likely report an ergonomic injury to their immediate supervisor, and an incident report form would be completed to begin the reporting process. Because employees are now working remotely, employers should evaluate their current injury reporting systems to ensure there are clearly identified procedures that can be implemented immediately among employees, supervisors and health care providers. When possible, employers should consider implementing online injury reporting systems to encourage employees to report symptoms early on.   

In order to maintain the health and safety of remote employees, employers should also provide employees with resources—such as OSHA’s eTools—which are interactive, web-based resources designed to prevent ergonomic injuries and illnesses. Remote employees might find the computer workstation eTools useful as a guide when setting up their remote workstation or as an assessment tool when making improvements to their workstations.

The promotion of proper ergonomic practices is key to preventing occupational injuries and illnesses among remote workers. Adopting good ergonomic practices does not necessarily happen instantly in an office setting. Likewise, the implementation process may be even more challenging in a remote work environment. Yet, employers have an obligation to keep workers safe from recognized hazards including the ergonomic hazards that could potentially result from a remote work setting.

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Author Bio
Sabrina N. Williams, Ph.D., is a full-time faculty member in the College of Safety and Emergency Services at Columbia Southern University. She also owns and operates an ergonomics consulting firm based in Brandon, Mississippi. She received a Bachelor of Science in mathematics from Southern University and both a master’s and doctorate degree in industrial engineering with emphasis in ergonomics and human factors engineering from Mississippi State University. Dr. Williams has a career that spans more than 20 years in various aspects of the safety profession including the U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration. 

About Columbia Southern University
For more than 25 years, Columbia Southern University has been a leader in occupational safety and health education. Taught by experienced safety experts, CSU’s bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in occupational safety and health are recognized by the Board of Certified Safety Professionals as Graduate Safety Practitioner® Qualified Academic Programs. CSU’s occupational safety and health degree programs meet the educational requirements mandated by the Board of Certified Safety Professionals for the Associate Safety Professional designation (ASP®) and the Certified Safety Professional designation (CSP®).