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Ergonomics: Working from home shouldn't hurt

Ergonomics: Working from home shouldn't hurt

With the pandemic continuing, many people are still working from home. Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, employers must take every reasonable precaution to protect workers - including teleworkers - from hazards.

WSPS would like to shed light on some of the areas that employers need to think about regarding keeping these employees safe. In the first part of our series on telework and health and safety, here is the scoop on preventing MSDs in a working from home world.

Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), those painful injuries that affect muscles, tendons, ligaments and nerves, could soon become a reality for teleworkers, warns Don Patten, Specialized Services Lead (Ergonomics) at WSPS.

"Many home office workers may be experiencing physical discomfort because of poor workstation design, particularly if they have a temporary set-up at a kitchen table. Their discomfort could soon manifest itself as an MSD."

Taking steps now could head off that injury. It's not just the right thing to do, it's the law.

Don outlines six steps that could help protect teleworkers from MSDs.

  1. Develop a teleworking policy, based on existing policies and practices. Consider home office/workstation set-up, work scheduling, communication, work environment, and mental health and wellness. (See 5 key components of a teleworking policy for more on this.)
  2. Train employees. All supervisors and employees, including people working out of the home, need to understand MSD risks and prevention strategies, including proper workstation design. The type of training will depend on whether the home workstation is permanent (with ergonomically designed chairs and tables) or temporary (using furniture already in the home). Those with a temporary home office may need creative strategies for achieving the best posture possible, says Don. For example, use a pillow for lumbar support, a stack of books to raise the laptop to eye level, and a keyboard or mouse to reduce hand and wrist strain. Complement training with tools, guidelines, checklists, and regular reminders. For example, remind employees that they are responsible for reporting hazards and should do so at the first sign of discomfort.
  3. Assess risks. Start by having teleworkers complete WSPS' Home Office Workstation Checklist. The checklist asks yes or no questions, such as, "Does the placement of your monitor and keyboard allow for a comfortable position ( e.g. head looking forward, not turned to one side)?" Review any "no" answers with the employee and explore possible solutions together. WSPS offers a wide range of temporary home office resources to help troubleshoot problem areas. (See "How WSPS can help", below.)
  4. Encourage employees to report discomfort. "For instance," says Don, "some employees may be feeling bodily aches and pains from long virtual meetings. Solutions might include adding a break to meetings, so people can stretch and walk around, or keeping meetings short." Working in a fixed position in a temporary office can also be problematic. "Encourage employees to shift positions often. Stand at a kitchen island or sit on a couch even briefly, to change postures and refresh the mind/body." When in contact with employees, listen and watch for signs of discomfort. Ask employees how they're feeling. What starts out as discomfort could evolve into a permanent injury.
  5. Track the use of EAP services. Are employees accessing physiotherapy and massage more often? This could be a red flag for potential MSDs, says Don. "While it's great that employees are taking action for self-care, employers who see a big jump in numbers should re-double their efforts to raise awareness, train, and problem solve."
  6. Document everything. Demonstrating that you're doing everything reasonable to protect workers from MSDs means documenting training, risk assessments, and communications with employees. This could even include the self-inspection checklist for the home office, as listed above.

Check out our online library of resources designed to make remote work a productive experience for workers and employers. Among the offerings: MSD Prevention Awareness, a one-hour eCourse.

WSPS ergonomics specialists are available to conduct virtual office assessments and coaching, including recommendations for temporary home offices.