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In Practice

Address Ergonomic Problems Before Remote Work Becomes a Costly Risk

Last spring, workplaces across the world closed as COVID-19 spread. Millions of employees made the overnight shift to working from home, some from their couch, kitchen table or bedroom floor. 

A year on, a good percentage of those employees are still working remotely, with research showing that the majority want to continue doing so, at least partially, once the pandemic is over. Employers, too, have embraced the new normal, with some major companies extending their remote work policies and expressing willingness to allow at least some of their people to shift to a permanent work-from-home status.

From flexible working hours to better work-life balance, the benefits of remote work for employees are numerous. Companies can also benefit from a more engaged and productive workforce and reduced costs. But the shift to remote work doesn’t come without potential pitfalls, including the risk of an increase in ergonomic injuries.

Musculoskeletal Injuries, Costs Increasing

Ergonomic-related discomfort is already on the rise, both in the U.S. and elsewhere. As employees in the U.S. worked more hours to keep up with their workload while taking care of their families, almost half reported new or increased pain in their shoulders, back or wrists. Similarly, British home-based workers reported an increase in new aches and pains, especially in the neck, shoulders and back.

An analysis of data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Liberty Mutual and the National Academy of Social Insurance indicates that the increase in aches and pains is translating into costs for employers; between January and September 2020, costs associated with musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) have surpassed the annual cost during each of the past three years.  

Although some have recorded a drop in overall new workers’ compensation claims in 2020, the upward trend in MSD costs is likely to continue; MSD claims are expected to increase by up to 16% over the next 12 to 18 months. MSD injuries could become a major expense, with each individual ergonomic claim costing U.S. employers an average of $17,000. 

Help Employees Set Up an Ergonomically Correct Workstation

In the first weeks of the pandemic, many employers and employees expected the shift to remote work to be temporary. Now, with no definite end in sight, even for those wanting to return to their office-based desks, ad-hoc arrangements made at the start of the pandemic are no longer sufficient. 

Whether companies are planning a full return to the office or extending their remote-work policies, employers should consider how to help their people reduce the risk of injuries, both ergonomic and otherwise. 

While providing guidance about setting the right workstation is an essential start, employers should keep in mind that many employees may not have the right equipment to create an adequate workspace and may be reluctant, or unable, to make the financial investment themselves. Considering that employers save approximately $11,000 for each employee who works at home 50% of the time, companies may want to consider providing their people with financial assistance to set up an ergonomically correct workstation that can help minimize the risk of MSD injuries. 

Focus on Education

Financial assistance on its own is rarely enough to stem the risk of MSD injuries. Even the best equipment, when not properly used, can lead to injury. Employers, irrespective of whether they are granting financial aid, should also focus on providing learning resources geared toward helping their people set up an ergonomically correct workspace at their home, especially since research shows that 43% of employees have not taken action to improve their at-home workspace. 

Every home is different, and thus there is no uniform solution. However, employers can collaborate with ergonomic experts to create a set of guidelines and best practices to help employees modify their work environment according to their needs and resources, whether they are working from a private office or the kitchen table. Special attention should be given to proper posture, and employers can use illustrations and images to communicate positions that decrease the risk of ergonomic pain. Web-based training can provide employees guidance about ergonomics and safety issues they are likely to encounter while working remotely.

Crucially, employers should communicate the importance of taking regular short breaks. With no commute, many employees are working longer hours and often forego a proper break. But there are benefits in standing up and stretching muscles, even if it requires setting a timer as a reminder to do so. While employers cannot force their people to take a break, they should regularly communicate the importance of doing so to let their employees know this is not only allowed, but recommended.

Now’s the Time to Review Your Ergonomics Program

Senior leaders, especially those planning to bring at least part of their workforce back to the office, should not stop at reviewing the needs of their remote employees. They should take the opportunity to review their entire ergonomics program, identify gaps and create an action plan to address them. 

The past year has shown how quickly the world may need to revert to a remote working model. Even when the COVID-19 pandemic is over, employers need to be prepared for the next crisis that may require their people to work from home. Now is the time to look back at what worked in the past year and the challenges that need to be addressed, before a remote working plan needs to be implemented. 

Jeffrey Smagacz

Senior Vice President, Ergonomics Practice Leader and Global Ergonomist at Marsh Advisory

Jeff Smagacz is the Global Ergonomics Practice Leader and a senior vice president in Marsh Advisory’s Workforce Strategies Practice. An engineer and ergonomist, he has spent almost 30 years in ergonomics risk consulting, helping more than 86% of the global Fortune 1000 companies develop, deploy, integrate, and manage effective and sustainable ergonomics and lean processes.

Susan Denecke

Senior Vice President, Virtual Ergonomics Practice Leader at Marsh Advisory

Sue Denecke is a senior vice president and the Virtual Ergonomics Practice Leader for Marsh Advisory’s Workforce Strategies Practice.  With over 30 years of experience in ergonomics, process, and data management, she oversees process efficiency and delivery standards while providing ergonomics expertise to Fortune 500 companies in various industries.

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