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6 tips for preventing MSDs in the post-pandemic office

Global Ergonomics Month

October is Global Ergonomics Month and as workplaces prepare to assume a more permanent office model (full-time office, full-time home office, or a hybrid of the two), now is the ideal moment to consider possible ergonomic implications. Are existing office set-ups as ergonomically safe as they could be? Are any of us developing aches and pains from working in temporary home offices? Make-do office equipment, combined with sedentary work and stress, can be punishing on shoulders, backs, arms, wrists, and psyches.

“Some of us may have ignored or not reported discomfort, believing the situation temporary,” says Nathan Birtch, WSPS Specialized Ergonomics Consultant. “But that hidden discomfort is going to follow people, and in the short term this can affect productivity and efficiency. If not checked, it could lead to musculoskeletal injuries (MSDs) and time off work.”

So, what can workplaces do to reduce the potential for MSDs in all three models of office work? Here’s what Nathan suggests.

  1. Conduct a worker discomfort survey using a downloadable form from the MSD Prevention Guideline for Ontario. What hurts most? Neck, shoulders, hips, wrists, etc? Are workstations causing the discomfort? Communicate overall survey results to participants, take steps to address individual concerns, and look for trends, such as multiple reports of shoulder or neck pain. Redo the survey in a couple of months to look for new or continuing issues.
  2. Going forward, ensure workstations are fitted with the right equipment for optimal postures. For home offices, conduct a virtual assessment if you haven’t already done so.If ergonomically designed and adjustable equipment is required, preselect equipment, and provide employees with a list of two or three options. For employees returning to the office, assess existing equipment. Does it require upgrading? Ensure hotelling stations, which will be used by different people, are fitted with adjustable equipment, including a height adjustable monitor or stand to raise laptops, plus a separate keyboard and mouse.  
  3. Develop or review your existing office ergonomics program and procedures. The MSD Prevention Guideline for Ontario offers quick fixes to help prevent MSDs. Ensure your program includes ways for employees to report incidents or raise concerns.
  4. Train all employees on proper workstation set-up and MSD prevention. Discuss how MSDs develop, which working postures are best, hazards to be aware of, and how to fix problems. (See “How WSPS can help.”) “Employees who use hotelling stations will be moving from their home office set-up to a completely different set-up and may need extra training,” notes Nathan.
  5. Assign a workplace champion or team of champions who have training in ergonomics and workstation set-up. With the proper knowledge and experience, these individuals will be able to carry out mini-assessments and respond to employee concerns. “The champion’s role is to be the first line of support in making sure things get addressed in a timely manner,” says Nathan.
  6. Encourage breaks from sedentary work. “Many employees have been spending more time at their desks during the pandemic, raising the risks for cardiovascular disease, weight gain, and MSDs,” says Nathan. “The goal is to alternate between standing and sitting, and to increase movement.”

Here are three ways to promote movement among workers:

  • provide sit/stand desks and headphones so workers can move during virtual meetings and phone calls
  • encourage the use of apps and alerts that remind home office workers to get up and move
  • offer tips, such as reading documents on a higher surface while standing (home office), using coffee breaks to walk, move or stretch, and having in-person conversations instead of emailing or phoning, if COVID protocols permit.

For more insights, sign up for these free, virtual WSPS Safety Connections sessions:

How WSPS can help

WSPS ergonomics specialists are available to conduct virtual or in-person office assessments and coaching, and help you develop an office ergonomics program. Connect with a consultant today.

The information in this article is accurate as of its publication date.