By Dave Johnson, Phylmar newsletter editor
In the age of COVID-19, many employers are saying,” Let our people work from home. Good luck with that,” says Kathleen Foster, who spent 20 years implementing Chevron Corporation’s global ergonomics program. “These are not low risk people. Working from home is a much higher risk. These people are not working with ideal solutions,” she says.
Beginning in March, tens of millions of American workers—mostly in white-collar industries —were thrust into working from home. Six months later, the experiment isn’t close to ending. For many, the test run is looking more like the long run. When the pandemic is over, one in six workers is projected to continue working from home or co-working at least two days a week, according to a recent survey by economists at Harvard Business School. Global Workforce Analytics estimates by 2021, 25-30% of the workforce will be working-from-home multiple days a week.
“Right now, remote work isn’t working for most companies,” says Hiten Shah, an advisor to remote work companies. “That’s because we spent the last 120 years learning how people can be productive in an office.”
Kathleen Foster agrees. She says home offices are often anything but “offices.” Employees can be working in the kitchen, on the couch, in the bedroom, with laptops on living room coffee tables, end tables and other jerry-rigged workstation set ups. Many telecommuters in cities live in apartments or homes too small for designated office space.
Plus, work tables are often not positioned at the right height. Lighting can be poor. Files may be boxes on the floor. Room temperatures can be too hot or cold. Chairs can be inappropriate for hours of sitting. Computer screens, keyboards and mouses may not be ergonomically correct. The result: back injuries, neck pain, wrist pain, muscle fatigue, eye strain and other musculoskeletal disorders.
Long before the pandemic, in 2012, 25.5 million people lost an average of 11.4 days of work due to back or neck pain, for a total of 290.8 million lost workdays. Eighty percent of all claims under workers’ compensation are musculoskeletal sprain/strain injuries, according to NU Property Casualty. Costs to employers are substantial. The most costly lost-time workers’ compensation claims involved the head or central nervous system, according to the National Council on Compensation Insurance. Other high comp costs: the neck ($58,275). arm or shoulders ($45,465), and backs ($65,000).
And among children and adolescents, musculoskeletal conditions are surpassed only by respiratory infections as a cause of missed school days – and this was before schools closed and children studied from home online.
Foster says these costs are not catching the eye of most employers. Nor are the ergonomic-related risk factors of working from home. “Employers now are preoccupied with preventing COVID-19 cases. “They haven’t a clue what will happen ergonomically. I don’t think it’s in their scope. It’s just not on their radar.”
“It’s been several months now and home workers are saying I have this pain, this discomfort. I don’t think most companies have thought about how to handle it other than throw money at it – buying workstation equipment and so on. But they don’t know how the equipment is being set up at home. If you can’t do an on-site evaluation, I ask for photographs. We did this for years at Chevron with remote workers. If I couldn’t get photos of work set ups, I’d ask questions. Where are you working? How many hours a day? Do you take regular breaks? Do you have discomfort or pain? Are your work positions awkward? Do you frequently over-reach or twist and bend for documents and supplies. How much lifting do you do?”
Foster says distance ergonomic training is critical for at-home workers. “Basically, you look at risk factors for ergonomics. How long are you doing the task? Is there poor posture or poor positioning – heads down looking at laptops. Let employees know the risk factors and train behaviors to deal with the risks. Take stretch breaks, rotate tasks. The employee’s behavior is key. You can have the best equipment and software, but it’s your behavior that will keep you safe or not.
Foster also advocates early reporting of pain and discomfort from the home front. “Catch problems before they turn into costly comp cases.” But with the current focus on COVID-19, Foster sees few companies with home office reporting policies or systems.
She also recommends employers set up purchasing plans with vetted ergonomic equipment suppliers so home office workers have stipends to buy the right kind of workstations. “At Chevron we developed ergonomic equipment performance specifications so the company, and employees, could find the best equipment in the world.”