August 2020: New Study, What Does The New Pandemic Home Office Look Like?

This COVID-19 pandemic has forced rapid evolution of the workplace as many knowledge workers have been abruptly transitioned out of traditional offices into their new home offices. 

In traditional facility-based office environments, employers have control of the furniture and equipment.  With that as a base, they leverage ErgoSuite to assess, train, improve and coach employees so they can learn to correctly position the furniture, equipment “and themselves” as a part of new improved behaviors.  Add microbreaks, stretching and movement and now you’ve achieved a highly improved and managed situation.

In your employees’ homes, however, we see employees working in an infinite variety of well-meant yet high-risk improvised ways.

Your intrepid author noticed a new study published July 3, 2020 by the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine.  The study “The Home Office: Ergonomic Lessons From the “New Normal“, emphasizes the need for frequent brief breaks for telecommuters, working at home, which are required to stay healthy and minimize injuries.

Dr. Kermit Davis, PhD, a professor in the UC College of Medicine said: “The body doesn’t like static postures continually. You don’t want to do all sitting or all standing all the time. You want to alter your position and change it up throughout the day.

The study focused on the makeup of home workstations used by nearly 900 telecommuters and cited the following findings:

  • Most workers (58%) have had some type of office chair, although not all were good office chairs. The remaining workers used dining chairs (27%) and nonchairs like a bed or couch (15%).
  • A majority sit at a desk (88%), while a small portion sit at a table (7%) such as a dining table. Of the individuals working at a desk, four also have a standing workstation and one has a treadmill workstation.
  • The type of keyboard breakdown was laptop keyboard (54%) and external keyboard (46%), with 47% of the external keyboard users having a laptop as a secondary input.
  • Laptop touchpad or input devices were used by 46%, while an external mouse was used by 54%. More than half of the external mouse users (55%) used the touchpad of the laptop for an input device.
  • The use of monitors fell into four groups: laptop (29%), external monitor only (17%), combination of laptop and external monitor (39%), and multiple monitors (10%).
  • Many chairs were the wrong height (41% too low and 2% too high), which resulted in elevated arms, leaning on front edge, and poor head position. A common characteristic of the chairs was a hard surface to sit on (63%).
  • Some sat in a nonoffice-style workstation such as a couch or bed for their primary work area.
  • A slight majority of the workers had armrests on their chairs (53%), but many people did not use them (32%) or the armrest was improperly adjusted (18%). Lack of use of armrests causes contact stress on forearms and strain across the upper back.
  • The support of the back of the chair was often not used (69%) and oftentimes without any lumbar support (73%). Thus, many individuals do not have the proper support of their lower back.
  • Position of the monitor was oftentimes too low or off to the side. Three quarters of monitors were laptops, which were too low relative to the workers’ eye height.
  • External monitors were also routinely set up too low (52%) or too high (4%). Another common issue with the monitors was the lack of the primary screens centered in front of the workers (31%), resulting in twisting of the neck and/or back to view the monitor.
  • As expected, the secondary monitors were not centered for the most part (73%).
  • Poor lighting (17% had glare and 5% were too dark)
  • Feet not touching the floor (7%).
  • Very few work surfaces had a rounded edge; more than 90% had a hard, sharp edge.
  • There was one treadmill workstation that was set up appropriately.

Fortunately, EHS professionals can leverage technology and, in effect, be everywhere they need to at the same time thus turning on the lights, in effect, identifying and cataloging significant remote risks and helping employees to become informed and make better health decisions.

Known Risks in New Remote Locations

The science of Ergonomics relating to computer-users defines the hazards quite clearly: 

  • Force (behavior)
  • Repetition (behavior)
  • Duration (behavior)
  • Recovery Time (behavior)
  • Posture (behavior)
  • Contact Stress (behavior)
  • Optics (partly behavior)
  • Environment (temperature, humidity, air flow, etc…)

Ergonomics Safety Best Practices and Workers’ Compensation

A March 16, 2020 Business Insurance article “Coronavirus and Telecommuting: New Exposures for Employers”, is representative of what are now many articles from companies in the industry regarding guidance for employers on risk exposures for telecommuters and repetitive strain injuries. The full article is well worth reading while some excerpts include:

  • “We’re probably going to see more claims,” said Jeffrey Smagacz, Nashville-based ergonomics practice leader for Marsh LLC, addressing one area of concern as many office workers take to home to work.”
  • “In some cases, people who have always gone into an office are now working at a kitchen table that’s too high and sitting on a hard chair or sitting on a soft couch working in an awkward posture all day, Mr. Smagacz said.”
  • “More ergonomic injuries are likely from worker behaviors such as using their laptop on their couch, hunching over to see a screen and not having arm support to use the keyboard, said Deborah Roy, Falmouth, Maine-based president of SafeTech Consultants Inc. and president-elect of the American Society of Safety Professionals.
  • “If they’re continuing to do this over a period of time, obviously they’re going to start to have some discomfort,” she said. “People need to be focused on proper positioning, whether they’re working from home or in an office.”
  • “Employers may see an uptick in claims of back discomfort, particularly lower back, as well as neck discomfort and arm tendonitis, Mr. Smagacz said.”

This recent article in SHRM online “Are telecommuters covered under workers’ compensation?”, summed up the exposure succinctly and consistently: “Yes. In general, an employee injury or illness is compensable under workers’ compensation if it arises out of and in the course of employment, regardless of the location the injury occurs.”

Regarding “what employers should do to manage exposures”, this article from AmTrust Financial‘s website “Workers’ Comp Trends: Are Your Telecommuters Working in a Safe Workspace?”, resonated as mainstream sound guidance for employers. The full article is also well worth reading while some excerpts include:

  • “Employers pay for workers’ compensation insurance regardless of where the employee works, because premiums are based on payroll. So the real question employers need to ask themselves, is, “are my risks effectively managed?” This is essential to protect the employee and the company from unnecessary risks.”
  • “Making sure the employee’s residence has an ergonomically-friendly workstation, in a workspace that is free from obvious fire and ventilation hazards is a smart move. And be sure to train employees in the prevention of injuries relevant to their role, such as how to prevent musculoskeletal injuries for workers who may sit at a desk all day.”
  • “These tips can help your remote workers remain highly productive, protected from unnecessary risks — and keep your business from suffering the cost of claims from preventable injuries.”

Innovative Strategies Clients Are Using Now

We’ve spoken with many clients recently who are leveraging their ErgoSuite platforms to extend their Office Ergonomics safety net at their facilities to their employees newly telecommuting from home.

At the high level view, clients are leveraging ErgoSuite as their front-line surface area for employees and centralized EH&S management toolset for identifying status and trends and managing outlying situations:

  • Employees are consistently and comprehensively assisted with setting up or tuning up their home office workstations.
  • During the setup or tune up, employees self-correct most identified hazards.
  • Employees are gently coached to make best practice ergonomic behaviors routine and automatic.
  • As a byproduct of the automated assistance, a baseline of ergonomic metrics is assembled for EH&S use.
  • Appropriate professionals are automatically notified of outlying situations for review and resolution.
  • Automated reporting keeps EH&S apprised of and on top of organizational status and emerging trends.

Some of the ways companies are leveraging ErgoSuite’s tools across their telecommuting workforce include the following.  For immediate effective impact, without almost any effort at all, employers can keep to just the top three tools below and then consider anything further in the future:

ErgoTutor Office Ergonomics Training: Home Office Workstations

Employees are directed to complete the action-based course and “tune up” their home office workstations in addition to learning the best practices they should follow to share in the responsibility for healthy computing while working on their computers at home.  Employees are also directed to print and complete the Home Office Setup/Tune up Checklist, provided within the course.

A number of clients have customized the course and checklist to contain information unique for their companies.  Most employees are taking the course from within ErgoSuite and others are taking it directly through their company’s Learning Management System (LMS).

Ergo Self-Assessments

Clients are heavily using this web-based tool with ErgoSuite’s built-in self-assessments, while many others have created their own specialized self-assessments in ErgoSuite to gather a consistent baseline of ergonomic information about their employee populations working from home offices identifying outlying situations which can be resolved through a phone call, email or other contact.  

Some clients have taken the Home Office Setup/Tune up Checklist from ErgoTutor and created custom self-assessments with the checklist items so they can get a confirmation that employees have followed the checklist fully.  Some clients are customizing the checklist of recommendations contained in the personalized reports employees can receive after submitting their responses.

Desktop Behavioral Coaching Tools

ErgoSuite’s coaching tools are being heavily promoted to help employees learn to automatically work with the desired behaviors of using neutral postures, taking micro-breaks while working and moving about periodically during their day to stretch and break up static postures.  Some clients have modified their ErgoSuite Desktop Icon Menus adding company-specific links to internal COVID-19 resources while others have done similarly with their web-based ErgoSuite Personal Console Menu.

Some clients are adding new pandemic-relevant messaging directly into ErgoSuite’s Coaching Cues for reminders on regularly washing hands, keeping their keyboards, pointing devices and microphones clean and disinfected plus other currently relevant guidelines applying to people working from home offices.

Ergo Assistance Requests & Discomfort Notes

Some clients have organized and promote use of ErgoSuite’s Ergo Assistance Requests for orderly consistent processing of home office ergonomics needs of employees.  Some clients have designated specific people as Responders and Overseers based on the employee’s department, location or other criteria so the requests are routed correctly and efficiently.

SmartRULA Postural Self-Assessments

A number of clients are requiring employees to perform at least one SmartRULA Postural Self-Assessment while at their home office workstation to get a baseline of each employee’s quantified posture as well as provide a personalized report of recommendations to help the employee improve their posture where needed.

Some employees are performing their postural self-assessments directly within ErgoSuite’s point-of-use behavioral coaching toolset and others are performing it from their web-based ErgoSuite Personal Console.

ES Pro Workstation Assessments

Most clients, if not all, are heavily leveraging ErgoTutor and other ErgoSuite tools as their front-line surface area for employees using computers.  For the fractional percentage of situations which cannot be directly resolved by the employee and which require professional assistance, clients are conducting remote professional assessments as interventions as needed before small problems become big issues.

Administration and Reporting

Some clients have recently reassessed and updated their requirements for documenting and tracking ergonomic data naturally accumulating through ErgoSuite use across their organization.  Clients have expanded their automated reporting and analyses to effect a radar-like function for better understanding telecommuter organizational status and emerging trends relating to their Work From Home employees.

Continuous Improvement

Companies can now leverage the abrupt change, take decisive strategic action and become stronger by engineering higher organizational resilience through supporting a higher percentage of telecommuting within their workforce ahead of a next pandemic or future new wave of the current pandemic.

To achieve higher organizational resilience in the post-pandemic world, it is not required to “have all knowledge worker employees telecommuting full time”.  Instead, forward-thinking companies who have most, perhaps even all, of their knowledge worker employees telecommuting even just two or three days every week will be in a well-engineered and highly-competitive position to pivot more quickly in a crisis, mitigate much operational disruption in a crisis and attain this strategic business-continuity strength.

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