November 2020: Best Practices For Remote Worker Ergonomics

Understandably, employers are facing operational and financial dangers beyond cyber security, from numerous risks related to their home-based workers.  

In response, it’s no surprise that extending personalized, comprehensive and consistent ergonomic support to home-based employees is currently a prominent priority among health, safety and wellness professionals.  

In order to be sustainably most effective for their remote workers, and prevent a substantial amount of unnecessary exposure and expenditure, seasoned risk professionals are expertly blending short-term triage with long-term sustainability requirements as the workforce has pivoted from office-based workers to mostly home-based workers.  

We’ll return to these thoughts in a moment after examining some fresh solid data points.

First, as if a pandemic wasn’t enough to deal with already, in June 2020 there was a newly published study in the peer-reviewed Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) which confirmed a clear link between cancer rates in adults and too much sitting

The lead author Dr. Susan Gilchrist, said in a statement “Our findings reinforce that it’s important to ‘sit less and move more’.

From a CNN article reporting on that study, Too Much Sitting Raises Your Risk For Cancer, Study Finds, “Incorporating 30 minutes of movement into your daily life can help reduce your risk of death from cancer. Conversations with my patients always begin with why they don’t have time to exercise,” said Gilchrist, who leads MD Anderson’s Healthy Heart Program.”

If we were not in the midst of a life-threatening global pandemic, that news would have reverberated across the news outlets significantly more so than related science-based news did a few years ago concerning other deleterious health effects of chronic sitting in the facility-based office workplace.  

“I tell them to consider standing up for 5 minutes every hour at work.” Gilchrist continued.   “It might not sound like a lot, but this study tells us even light activity has cancer survival benefits.

The study involved more than 8,000 people between 2009 and 2013 where none of the participants had cancer when the study began. Gilchrist and the researchers found there was an 82% higher risk of dying from cancer for the most sedentary people compared to the least sedentary people. 

That news has clearly been resonating with astute risk managers who have an eye on the palpable financial impacts of poor ergonomic conditions.

How Are Our Remote Employees Faring Right Now?

Beyond the confirmed morbidity linked to people sitting for long periods while working, a substantial body of data for knowledge workers (aka computer workers) exists correlating physical ergonomics, discomfort and injury.  

Resulting ergonomic regulations in more than 30 countries respond to the data regarding how people working on computers need to adopt healthful behaviors specifically including working in neutral postures, taking microbreaks while working to provide recovery time and move about during their work time.

Unfortunately, over the course of this protracted and tenuous pandemic so far this year, remote workers have regressed 40 years in office workplace safety advancements.  This is because of, even with the best intentions, the abrupt improvisation of new home offices to rapidly meet functional requirements of their work.  The data-driven science teaches that this will present in substantially increased discomfort, healthcare overutilization, productivity erosion and compensable injuries.

A recent survey by insurance company Chubb “Americans Working from Home due to COVID-19 are Productive and Resilient – But Signs of Strain are Showing, elucidates impacts of the pandemic on remote employees:

A separate recent survey by healthcare provider Hinge Health “New Health Risks of the Remote Workplace, yields quite similar numbers and confirms impacts of the pandemic on remote employees:

Changing Behavior Requires Behavior Change Principles

For several decades, a fundamental understanding within office ergonomics has been how the process of “mitigating risk factors” includes interventions of various types (e.g. using adjustable workstation components, workstation analysis, adjustment, employee training, etc…) which are all purposed to foster good employee behaviors such as working in neutral postures, taking microbreaks and moving while working.

These interventions are important in setting the stage for the employee to “begin their behavior change journey“, however, it will be an unfulfilled hope and misunderstanding to then simply expect that behavior change will be automatic and appear on its own after that point in time.

Within Psychology, almost 100 years of Applied Behavioral Analysis data clearly teaches that without operant conditioning and continual reinforcement at the point-of-use, then long term behavior change is at best remote and unlikely in any human experience other than immediate life-threatening scenarios.

Plainly speaking, we cannot get around this basic fact and our program expectations cannot be realized without embracing this basic precept of human behavior (see study references below and elsewhere on this site). We are, after all, earnestly working to improve employee behaviors to help them work in neutral postures, provide recovery time and move about more while working.

Home Worker

The Top 10 Mistakes in Behavior Change:

Relying on willpower for long-term change.
Attempting big leaps instead of baby steps.
Ignoring how environment shapes behaviors.
Trying to stop old behaviors instead of creating new ones.
Blaming failures on lack of motivation.
Underestimating the power of triggers.
Believing that information leads to action.
Focusing on abstract goals more than concrete behaviors.
Seeking to change behavior forever, not for a short time.
Assuming that behavior change is difficult.

Source: Stanford University

Effectively Managing Remote Employees In The New Normal

With the high variability of environment, furniture and equipment used by employees in their homes, a Structured Managed Safety Program for your computer-using telecommuters is central among the steps employers take to minimize and reduce the frequency and costs of new workers’ compensation exposure.

A recent article in Risk & Insurance Magazine sums up the “why” regarding telecommuting ergonomics as well as “what organizations should be doing now” 5 Ways Ergonomics Can Help Improve Coronavirus Telecommuting  “Employers should realize that in order to maintain productivity and the health and safety of their employees, they need to provide whatever information or tools or resources are necessary to help while this work situation exists.”

A person who is working from home and experiences wrist pain or neck or shoulder pain related to working at a computer is not very different than a person in a traditional office except that their training, self-assessments, professional assessments and other interventions need to be done remotely.

We’ve heard repeatedly from many clients over years how there’s heightened concern that many of the people who telecommute are likely to be reluctant to report home office ergonomic issues and discomfort due to a private concern of the ability to telecommute being rescinded.

Instead of reporting issues to their employer, often telecommuters instead postpone addressing the matter, eventually attempt to quietly resolve symptoms through their personal doctor and look towards their health insurance to cover the bill. In most cases, this develops into unnecessary over-utilization of healthcare resources.

Effective Structured Ergonomics Programs For Telecommuters Include:

Action-based Training Including Workstation Setup and Behavior Guidelines

Self-Assessment With Checklists and Personalized Recommendations

Point-of-Use Behavioral Coaching Tools for Micro-breaks, Stretching and Movement

Centralized Tracking and Management of Data

Simplified Employee Reporting of Hazards and Symptoms

Automatic Identification and Notification of Threshold-Exceeding Metrics and Events

Best Practices For Remote Worker Care

Let’s return to how seasoned risk professionals today are expertly blending short-term triage with long-term sustainability requirements to care for their home-based workers.

Beyond demonstrating how an employer stands behind and cares about their remote employees, leveraging Structured Managed Ergonomics Programs has repeatedly been confirmed to provide many sustainable bottom line returns far in excess of their costs.

We’ve spoken with many clients recently who have called in and are successfully leveraging the ErgoSuite platform they own to extend their Office Ergonomics safety net at their facilities to their employees telecommuting from home-based offices.

In short, the clear focus is on a core of three high-value steps:

Office Ergonomics Training – Facility & Home Office
   Objectives: Assist the employee with ergonomic setup of their facility & home office workstation and learn the basic ergonomic principals including working in neutral postures and providing recovery time during work. Document scored risk level and employee completion of the course.

Ergo Self-Assessment   Objectives: Gather a baseline of important information about the employee’s home office workstation. Reinforce the Office Ergonomics Training course.  Provide additional reinforcing personal guidance for employees.  Document employee completion of the self-assessment. Score and rank responses. Notify EH&S of threshold-exceeding self-assessments for review.

Desktop Behavioral Coaching Tools   Objectives: Reinforce the desired employee behaviors of working in neutral postures and pacing while working to provide recovery time (microbreaks and sit/stand breaks) especially in challenging home-based office environments. Beyond this step’s own innate critical values, this step is the epoxy that binds the derived value of the two preceding steps for a sustainable solution.

In addition to the above, about 90% of the clients who have called in are promoting Discomfort Messaging for early intervention – in order to resolve issues while they’re small instead of when they’re reported as part of an injury report or claim.

We have also seen an increasing number of clients adding the ErgoTutor Office Ergonomics Training eLearning Course as an effective immediate plug-in for their own Learning Management System. It’s comprehensive and available to employees within minutes after loading.

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