New Ergonomics Skills for Telecommuters

The flexibility to work from home is a significant advantage for many employees.  Sadly though, the move home has also lead to increasing reports of staff discomfort and injury, even with the support of ergonomics checklists and a follow-up call. With decreased control over changing work environments, managers are asking “How do we protect our staff?”

Managers are right to ask this question.

Recently I worked with Jean. After seven years of traveling 3 hours a day to and from work, Jean welcomed the chance to work from home. Setting off with her ergonomic checklist and budget for an office chair, Jean visualised morning walks, Yoga classes and extra time with friends. Fantastic!

After only six months, Jean was experiencing significant levels of pain and mounting medical bills. Weekly physio and acupuncture appointments, and suspending yoga classes due to neck, shoulder and back pain was not the plan. In just six months,  Jean’s shoulder needed regular Cortisone injections and surgery.

Jean was emotional, exhausted and running out of money.

Staff need more than Office Ergonomics

When planning the move home, an office ergonomics checklist is just one of three areas to consider. The guidelines also need to consider the work environment and support a range of healthy work behaviours. In addition, all three of these areas must be considered in greater depth and support must ensure recommendations are achievable. For example, is there a need for air-conditioning, or is the noise from the squealing toddler next door a problem?

As staff may now feel isolated, how will mangers maintain a sense of ‘Teamsmanship’ or reinforce health and safety guidelines? A fall on the way to the bathroom during working hours may still be a worker compensation claim, even if the employee was wearing slippery socks or tripped over the toy in the passage.

To explore the need for a little creative thinking, while these photos reveal some ergonomic issues, the reasons why these issues occurred is not always obvious.

For example,

  • Chair height: The desk had drawers, limiting chair height adjustment. The ergonomic checklist only covered desired desk height, not depth.
  • Chair back: The checklist discussed the benefits of the lumbar support, but Jean could not feel if the chair back was adjusted correctly. She needed an observer to help.
  • Reference material: Two manuals were in constant use, but with little space on the desk and no budget for a stand, one manual sat behind Jean on the bed. This led to a constant and exaggerated back twist and lean. Jean sort of knew this could be bad, but also thought this action might be a good stretch to help her sore back.
  • Laptop: The office ergonomic checklist covered desktop computers. While Jean knew the screen should be higher, she had no information on how to setup a laptop computer and no budget for a laptop stand, external keyboard or mouse.

 

Jean was sitting with hunched shoulders, no back support, neck constantly in flexion, right arm abducted to use the mouse, no forearm support and a repetitive and exaggerated twist and lean to the right to use reference material.

 Is it any wonder Jean was in a lot of pain!

 

Adding to discomfort, the large window in Jean’s room looked out to the beach. Working in front of this window caused significant screen glare and contrast, leading to eye strain. In addition, with no air-conditioning and a noisy flatmate, the bedroom door was keep closed leading to a hot and stuffy room.

More to the story

The more obvious ergonomic problems could be corrected using photographs of the workstation and phone call support. An OH&S officer could easily talk through furniture and equipment adjustment and discuss other environmental or equipment considerations. However, these photos would not show Jean’s normal work posture or provide non-visual information regarding risks in the immediate work environment.

Most importantly, it’s the work behaviours that are the hardest to control and yet the most influential when trying to minimise pain and avoid injury. The ergonomics and environmental recommendations provide the framework, but it is the health and safety work behaviours that make the management or prevention of discomfort and injury a reality.

What Jean needed!

 After I had completed the workstation assessment and coaching session, I sat with Jean to plan the new work routines needed to help elevate her pain. Sadly, as Jean was already in significant pain, this process required incorporating her doctors recomendations and gently trying a range of stretched and exercises to ensure these were achievable. Jean also admitted that being in pain made her avoid walking during breaks, and she had forgotten to stretch.

OHS officers must make the call

Not just once and not just about the ergonomics

 

Building a personalised plan for Jean was essential. Listening to her case history and creating a balanced work-break plan in consultation with Jean, helped ensure achievable work pattern goals.

Jean needed coaching, not just information on the workstation set-up and placement of reference material. Coaching should include questions to understand the work environment and guidance to support a healthy work cycle. For example, Prof A Hedge’s 20/8/2/ – 20 minutes sitting (in a good posture), 8 minutes standing (for sit-stand workstations) and 2 minutes of standing and moving (gentle stretching, walking etc.).

Providing generalised advice should be just the first step of new workplace health and safety plans. Staff also needed ongoing support to ensure issues are identified and resolved before any discomfort turnes into an injury. However, in Jean’s case, she only heard from her supervisor when late signing in, and with no face-to-face contact, her social interactions and general affinity with her team waned.

After just six months, the dream of early morning walks along the beach and an extra three hours a day to start a new training course was long gone. Instead, Jean was suffering physical and financial distress, felt alienated from her company and forgotten by her manager.

The start of your new office ergonomic training

The 21st Century workforce is unique. Staff are no longer bound to one desk – technology has created a dynamic workplace where staff are free to hot-desk (sometimes with tablets) or work from home and constantly interface with multiple screens.

With work-related musculoskeletal disorders already considered the most significant negative health issues associated with the use of personal computers, and decreasing control over new work environments, rates of discomfort and injury are set to rise.

Industry can no longer try to manage risks using training that is decades old. Office ergonomic training must now build a new range of personal skills needed to manage the immediate work environment, workstation setup and, most importantly, the new work behaviours needed to minimise or eliminate pain and the chance of injury and increase productivity. A new range of work skills that make recommendations easy to personalise and quick to apply to any work (or leisure) situation.

Discover the difference 21st Century Office Ergonomics Training can make to your business.

Our cost-effective program tasters make it so easy to see the difference. Fun, interactive lunchbox talks or workstation assessment that include personalised coaching, provide easy to remember advice that ensure immediate benefits? (Certainly not the same old boring checklists!)

 Make us part of your Health and Wellness strategy this year!

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