What safety professionals need to know about at-home ergonomics

As Omicron wave sends people back to their home office, experts offer advice on how to ensure teleworkers stay healthy

What safety professionals need to know about at-home ergonomics

With the current Omicron wave in Canada, many workers are back to temporarily working from home in an effort to curb the spread of the virus.

Canadian employees have been working from home on and off for almost two years now. In fact, some workers never stopped and have permanently shifted to teleworking or have embraced a hybrid model.

Since the outset of the pandemic, safety professionals have been eyeing ergonomic home office solutions to ensure that workers are safe and healthy.

But optimal ergonomics can be a complex issue, and two years into the pandemic there are still a number of lessons that safety officers can learn.

Working from home has not necessarily changed in the past two years as far as focusing on the four major parts of the body that can be affected by a poor ergonomic set-up: these are the neck area, lower back, wrists and forearms and feet.

“I think what has changed, and what people are really looking at now versus when the pandemic started, is figuring out what your work style is to be the best in that space,” says Lisa Schuiteboer-Shuler, Certified Ergonomic Expert and Ergonomic Category Manager, Kensington.

By this she means that, for those employees choosing to work from home more permanently, choosing to invest in long-term equipment or having a dedicated office – or for those working in more transient set-ups what working style will be ergonomically optimal.

For these workers, and for employees in a hybrid model, “the risk is going to be if the tools are not available,” says Schuiteboer-Shuler, “if you’re choosing to be a transient or mobile worker, there is a little bit more risk there because it could be a different [work] set-up – there’s no set routine of how the equipment would be set up.”

And so there is more of a reliance on the workers themselves of being responsible for having the right kind of equipment such as a laptop raiser or an external keyboard and mouse to create the ideal set-up for ergonomics.

Another important aspect is making sure that equipment is adjustable for the worker and their job.

Schuiteboer-Shuler also mentions the 20-20-20 rule, which would be to go 20 feet or metres away for 20 seconds, every 20 minutes, “so that way you can physically reset your body and reduce eye fatigue.”

Ergonomic assessment

There are a number of things that safety professionals can look out for to ensure optimal ergonomics.

First of all would be to have an ergonomic assessment, a specialist or software available that workers and employers can go through to mitigate the risks than an employee might have in their home space.

“Or at least having a contact within their company that they could call if someone is experiencing discomfort or has a question about their set-up since they are not on-site and available to go and talk to human resources or safety,” says Schuiteboer-Shuler.

Safety professionals can also provide a standard list of equipment that is approved by an ergonomics specialist; employers can also provide a stipend for employees to purchase the right equipment.

“There’s really no one-size-fits-all when it comes to ergonomics, it’s really trying to find that best piece of equipment for your situation, for your body type. And that’s where having that expertise come into place is really important,” she says.

For workers who have been in makeshift set-ups for the last two years, there could be negative health outcomes.

“We’re seeing a lot of people with neck and shoulder problems, especially if they’re working with their laptop and they can’t get those monitors at accurate heights,” says Kathy-Lynn Shaw, Canadian Certified Professional Ergonomist and Registered Kinesiologist, Kinetic Life Solutions.

Shaw also says that other stressors, such as a lack of work- life balance and social isolation, can impact a worker’s physical health.

There is value to having a more holistic approach to worker health, such as creating a routine that includes healthy habits that allow for a better work life balance such as a good diet or stretch breaks to get away from the computer.

This also includes creating physical and mental boundaries.

“Even though people talk about all of the distractions that they have working from home, more people end up sitting in a longer non-neutral position because they’re trying to get the next thing done – they forget to get up, they forget to look away from the screen because there isn’t someone coming by your desk to ask you a question.

This really sets you up for some pretty bad habits unless you intentionally include those good, healthy behaviours from the start,” says Schuiteboer-Shuler.

Bad habits

For those employees only working remotely for a short period of time, a less than optimal ergonomic set-up may not have a lasting effect.

However, now two years in, employees working from home may be developing bad habits that could last during their work lifetime, “unless they choose to mitigate it with a proper posture or a different toolkit,” says Schuiteboer-Shuler.

This is especially the case for younger workers who started their career during the pandemic who may have developed these bad habits at the beginning of their work lives.

“Not having good habits included in their work life, that's really going to set them up for a disaster earlier on,” she says. In the past, poor ergonomic habits at work may have led to musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) decades later whereas developing had habits earlier on could lead to MSDs as early as two or three years into their work life depending on the bad habits they’ve created.

Whereas before, working from home was a free-for-all, now workers choosing to do so more permanently need a proper office set up, with office hours “to really minimize that stress load for each individual person working from home,” she says.

“One of the biggest challenges for ergonomics is when we’re working from home, we’re not necessarily set up to the same standard as we are in the office,” says Kathy-Lynn Shaw, Canadian Certified Professional Ergonomist and Registered Kinesiologist, Kinetic Life Solutions.

There are a lot of external challenges for those working from home, such as childcare and other kinds of external influences that don’t exist in the office environment, that can affect worker health.

“If you are working from home, the biggest tip from an ergonomist’s perspective is to get adjustable equipment,” says Shaw. But workers may not have access to adjustable desks or monitors – especially if telework is a temporary solution as is the case for many workers amid the current Omicron wave.

Better support

An optimal ergonomic set-up is essential for worker health and safety. However, for those employees only temporarily working from home, investing hundreds of dollars in ergonomic equipment may not be an ideal solution. For these workers, Shaw offers some basic tips:

Usually, most people working from home are sitting on a chair which isn’t adjustable and doesn’t have any back support or proper armrests (e.g. a kitchen chair):

“One thing you can do is consider using a pillow or a folded-up towel on the seat to provide a little bit more cushion,” says Shaw. “Most of us are working at the kitchen table, which is actually higher than a standard desk. So, you want to make sure you’re up and your arms are level with your work surface.”

Workers can roll up a towel and put it behind their lower back to give a bit more lumbar support.

“The other thing is foot support,” she says. “So sometimes on the chairs, we might need additional leg support. Sometimes our feet dangle, and if your feet are dangling that can put more stress on your lower back. You can use books or binders, or even boxes or small containers, underneath your seat to make sure your feet are supported.”

She also says that you want to make sure that your knees are not higher than your hips, this helps maintain the integrity of the lower back.

Another key thing to look out for is palm supports for typing and mousing.

“Again, you can roll up a smaller towel or even cut a pool noodle in half which makes a really nice palm support,” says Shaw. “They should be resting just on the bottom part of the palm of the hand, not on the wrist itself. And what they’re meant to do is keep your wrist in a more neutral position.”

The biggest challenge, she says, is that a lot of people are working from laptops and setting up the screen at eye-height places your arms in an awkward posture and you may get neck issues when the keyboard is set up properly on a surface and you look down at your screen.

“The biggest investment is to make sure you have either an external keyboard and mouse, or an external monitor,” says Shaw.  With an external keyboard and mouse, the screen of your laptop can be placed higher at your seated eye-height by placing the laptop on boxes or even an ironing board.

Shaw also recommends changing position, for example standing up at a kitchen counter.

“Kitchen tables, chairs, coffee tables, recliners, beds – these are not the same as office furniture. So we may have to take more breaks, stretch, and move around more frequently,” she says, “one of the biggest things is you may have to take more breaks than normal to help increase circulation and blood flow and prevent injuries.”