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When the coronavirus outbreak first hit in 2020, proper desk posture likely wasn’t a top concern among employers and employees.

A year into the pandemic, staff and businesses are being painfully reminded that ergonomics matter as much — if not more — at the home offices of remote workers than at traditional offices.

When the worst health crisis in more than a century began, few people had home offices or workstations set up in their homes. At that time, only 20 percent of U.S. employees who could work remotely did so. Now, more than 70 percent of employees are working from home, according to a study by the Pew Research Center.

While more people are working from home, many also are working in less-than-ideal environments.

Working from sofas

According to a June 2020 survey of 900 U.S. remote employees by Hinge Health, 46 percent said they were working in shared living spaces such as their dining room, living room, bedroom or laundry room.

About a third reported having a dedicated office space in a separate room, while about half of those surveyed indicated they spent most of their time working at a desk, the survey found. The dining table was the second most popular (15 percent) and the couch the third most likely place (11 percent).

To be sure, once employees were told to work from home to help stem the spread of the virus, many, like their employers, didn’t know how long the remote situation would last. Days, though, turned into weeks, which turned into months. A year later, many workers likely will continue working remotely at least on a partial basis even after the pandemic ends, surveys show.

READ: What small business owners need to know about remote-working risks, liability and insurance

And as the Hinge survey found, many workers are still using improvised home-office workarounds, such as setting their computer monitors on stacks of books or using dining-room chairs that lack proper lumbar support.

It is therefore critical that organizations ensure that remote workers have an effective at-home ergonomics plan in place, otherwise workers are poised for health problems — while businesses may face legal woes — experts say.

“People didn’t have the space to be set up at home,” said Brandon Jones, director of safety and risk services at Missouri Employers Mutual, a provider of workers’ compensation coverage. “You see them on the couch. You see them on the kitchen table, trying to sit there for eight, 10 hours a day, whatever it might be. It’s going to create issues.”

A matter of time

According to a survey last year by the insurer Chubb, two out of five remote workers in the U.S. reported experiencing new pain in their shoulders, back or wrists. Musculoskeletal injuries such as carpal-tunnel syndrome and tendinitis are becoming the fastest-growing workplace injury category, the survey found.

Matthew Forest, director of risk control services at Delaware-based Lyons Companies, an independent risk-management and insurance-brokerage firm, anticipates a flood of injuries due to the lack of proper ergonomics in the workspaces of remote workers.

“These massive shifts to remote work are something no one has ever had to do, and I worry that the cumulative stress on the workforce moving forward is going to rear its ugly head,” he said. “It’s going to be the carpal tunnels, the lower back strains and joint-related muscle-skeletal disorders.”

Karen Loesing, a consultant who runs The ErgonomicExpert.com, which performs ergonomic evaluations for businesses, agrees that many workers and companies overlooked the importance of proper at-home office setups amid the pandemic disruption.

Potential liability

“Many who are used to working from home have realized throughout the last year just how bad their workspace has been, because there is so much emphasis on ergonomics now,” she said.

About half of her clients provided ergonomic equipment like keyboards to remote workers, some employees got stipends, while others paid for gear themselves, Loesing added.

To be sure, business owners in the U.S. are responsible for providing a safe business environment even for remote workers, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration stipulates. According to the agency, remote employees (though not freelancers or contractors) have the same worker-compensation rights as in-office employees.

Unprepared companies may be in for a rude awakening when it comes to potential liability.

In the rush to switch from in-office to remote work during the pandemic, some employers did little other than hand their employees a computer. In fact, employers must consider such concerns as worker safety, cybersecurity risks and their own possible liability, experts advise.

“The level of risk is related to the amount of planning the employer did prior to the implementation of the work-from-home policy,” Dave Roy, second vice president of Travelers insurance company, said in a webinar last June. “Many companies had detailed plans and training in place that included an ergonomics overview and the types of computers and accessories that employees were going to use. Others had little plans except to provide a computer to the employees.”

Affording remote employees the proper training and establishing sound policies regarding ergonomics can help organizations avoid complications. At the very least, companies should share basic advice for properly setting up workspaces, experts say.

“With remote work as the new normal, employers and health plans will need to address these emerging health risks to enhance employee well-being,” Hinge Health said in its survey.

Chubb, which also is one of the biggest workers’ compensation underwriters in the U.S., offers organizations these ergonomics tips and best practices they can share with remote employees who are setting up workspaces their homes:

  • Workers need a seat that can be adjusted so that their feet are flat on the floor, thighs parallel to the ground and knees at a 90-degree angle.
  • If their feet dangle, a solid object should be placed underneath them to keep their legs in the ergonomically correct position.
  • The chair should also support their lower back and armrests need to be set slightly below sitting elbow height.
  • The mouse should be at a level so that the elbow is bent at a 90-degree angle, with wrist straight and shoulders relaxed while working.
  • The monitor should be placed an arm’s length away and tilted to minimize glare from overhead lighting. Workers should center their body so it’s in line with their computer monitor’s middle, which should be at eye level.
  • To reduce eye strain, workers should turn away from their computer monitors every 20 minutes and look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds.

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