© Fizkes | Dreamstime
Remote Work Ergonomics Dreamstime L 194853803

How to Develop an Ergonomics Program for Remote Workers

Aug. 30, 2022
It’s important for employees to have a well-designed workspace to prevent musculoskeletal disorders, sprains and other ergonomics-related injuries. And, for a growing number of workers, that includes their home office setup.

As COVID-19 spiked around the world in early 2020, companies shifted en masse toward remote work. Many organizations were telling themselves a story that things would revert to normal once the COVID-19 threat waned, but two-plus years later, it is clear the pandemic marked a turning point—not a brief pause in how we do business.

Data show the pandemic has changed the way employers and employees view the future of the office environment. Some organizations continue to seek hybrid options, while others see fully remote options as talent retention and recruitment tools. In fact, according to a recent Stanford University study, hybrid work options for a large technology firm reduced attrition rates by 35%.

When it comes to hybrid options, for those whose jobs can be performed from home, over half of employees report a preference to work fewer than three days a week in the office.

Despite these benefits, many work-from-home environments are fraught with health and safety risks. To protect employees from injury and guard against skyrocketing workers’ compensation costs, employers must prioritize the safety and well-being of their at-home workforce. This starts by addressing a primary risk posed by remote work: poor ergonomics.

It's common to hear about home-based employees slumped over a laptop while sitting on a couch or awkwardly situated at the kitchen counter or table. Often, remote workers lack access to adjustable office equipment or knowledge of how to optimize their home environment to achieve an ideal ergonomic setup.

To make matters worse, workers may find themselves logging more hours at home in these uncomfortable body positions. In environments with unmanaged ergonomic risks, rates of occupational injury will climb. We typically associate wrist and hand injuries with computer work, but the risk is actually also common for the lower back, shoulders, neck, eyes, elbows and forearms.

"It's a growing problem," says Katherine Mendoza, EHS director with the National Safety Council. “Many companies, if they are not seeing an increase yet (in musculoskeletal disorders), they probably will, and this is an opportunity for companies to start thinking about it.”

Experts argue that ergonomic injuries normally take six to 12 months to develop, making early detection and proactive interventions important. Indeed, as early as mid-2020, 41% of all workers were already reporting new or increased pain in their shoulders, back or wrists.

Increased pain, discomfort and injuries negatively impact employee morale, well-being and productivity. Beyond the individual harm, ergonomics issues can also contribute to high direct and indirect costs that affect company operations and financial performance.

"Adopting a culture of prevention is critical in this new environment since it enables companies to detect early warning signs of problems, such as pain and discomfort, and to take action before injuries can develop," says Kevin Costello, ergonomist and president of New York-based U.S. Ergonomics.

The collection of accurate, real-time data on employee work behaviors and risk exposure was key for managing office ergonomic risk before the pandemic. But when employees are effectively invisible working remotely, gathering accurate real-time risk data becomes even more necessary.

For a company to be effective at managing ergonomic risk, it must have visibility into what is happening within the workplace, even if that workplace now extends into employees' homes. When an organization lacks this visibility to risk, it becomes increasingly challenging to detect poor employee workstation setup or at-risk behaviors as well as provide recommendations to address these concerns.

Digital solutions that engage employees in the regular assessment of risk and empower them to address these issues early can be the difference between controlling injuries or being controlled by them. When determining what software solution can help you manage ergonomic risks in your remote workplace, consider the following:

1.Invite employees to play a role in managing risk.

Many employees are unaware that specific behaviors or even the design of their workstations can increase the risk of a soft-tissue injury. Often, the first step in managing ergonomic hazards is being educated on where hazards exist in the working environment.

When considering a software solution, it’s crucial to select one that offers tools to help increase employee awareness of ergonomic risk while also enabling employees to assess their own level of risk exposure by considering their personal working behaviors and workstation designs. Moreover, these tools need to help guide employees on corrective actions. Platforms that help highlight critical concerns and focus attention on issues relevant to the individual worker are immensely useful in getting—and keeping—employees involved in occupational health and safety programs.

2. Promote self-awareness and behavior change.

Simply designing more ergonomically-sound workstations will not guarantee an injury-free workplace. People can still adopt poor postures and unsafe working behaviors in an ideal working environment.

Therefore, employers need to consistently engage each employee and encourage them to continuously assess how they are working, how it might impact their risk exposure and suggest changes to ensure hazards are being actively managed. Engage employees to drive this level of self-awareness and behavioral self-reflection to empower them to take corrective actions.

Software solutions that monitor working patterns and encourage regular breaks with movement can be effective at promoting increased circulation and reduced muscle fatigue. And, tools that increase body awareness, such as noticing seated postures or wrist position on a keyboard, can help reduce static positing that can lead to stiffness.

It is important to note that these solutions will only be effective if they are sophisticated enough to work with employees rather than creating resistance. For example, activity-based reminders are better-received than time-based ones. Ensuring that employees can continuously assess their ergonomic risk exposure and make small adjustments in how they work helps to create a culture of continuous improvement.

Resolutions may be individualized, but a formal ergonomics system introduces an underlying culture of acceptance and awareness. When employees experience company-provided prompts for body awareness and mental health breaks, they may feel less stigma around raising an ergonomic-related issue with a supervisor or colleague.

3. Focus on the individual.

Managing ergonomic risk sustainably requires employee ownership, as your ergonomic experts can’t be everywhere at once. Leveraging technology to personalize your ergonomics program to each employee ensures that solutions and data are relevant to them and gives them agency to not only find problems but to fix them, too. After all, employees who are actually exposed to the hazard have the most to gain by improving their office ergonomics.

Any ergonomics software solution under consideration should include features that help guide and empower employees to resolve identified risks, including the ability to create individual action plans that offer research-based recommendations on how employees can easily and cost-effectively address risks by themselves. Ideally, when the software detects an issue, employees will have a way to take immediate actions, such as contacting someone at their organization or an external safety expert.

And while ergonomics recommendations need to be personalized, aggregating data from across the system is powerful, too. If you can show all employees how ergonomic risks are identified, assessed and resolved, it will help gain buy-in and ensure future successes.

4. Provide employees with feedback loops.

Finally, a good solution will include ways for employees to close the loop by indicating when and how an ergonomics issue has been resolved or is being addressed.

Ongoing reminders allow employees to reflect on their progress, receive refreshers on the importance of certain ergonomic adjustments, and prioritize their mental and physical health in more bite-sized ways. Over time, microlearning enables greater awareness of ergonomics concerns to reduce injuries and keep those instances low. Employees can also report back with ways they have addressed and managed potential risks, helping to strengthen an ergonomics program over the long term.

Final Thoughts

“The solution doesn’t have to be a new desk or chair,” says Mendoza of the NSC. “There are a lot of fantastic solutions out there to decrease the risk and make the employee more comfortable. “It’s hugely important to engage employees as part of the solution.”

The success that many of our clients have had at reducing ergonomic risks across their workforce is because they focused on employee engagement. They designed their ergonomics program to be easy-to-use, relevant and appealing. Their program also prioritized employees’ needs and interests.

High-performing organizations that deploy a workforce-driven ergonomics program and successfully engage employees will not only be positioned to overcome the challenges of keeping remote employees safe; they will also be better equipped to adapt to whatever workplace changes lie ahead.

Ron Goodman is an ergonomics product manager at Cority, a global provider of enterprise EHS software. He developed RSIGuard, an award-winning desktop ergonomic software solution that reduces the impact of repetitive strain injuries (RSI) for office workers. 

Sponsored Recommendations

ISO 45001: Occupational Health and Safety Management Systems (OHSMS)

March 28, 2024
ISO 45001 certification – reduce your organizational risk and promote occupational health and safety (OHS) by working with SGS to achieve certification or migrate to the new standard...

Want to Verify your GHG Emissions Inventory?

March 28, 2024
With the increased focus on climate change, measuring your organization’s carbon footprint is an important first action step. Our Green House Gas (GHG) verification services provide...

Download Free ESG White Paper

March 28, 2024
The Rise and Challenges of ESG – Your Journey to Enhanced Sustainability, Brand and Investor Potential

Work Safety Tips: 5 Tactics to Build Employee Engagement for Workplace Safety

March 13, 2024
Employee safety engagement strategies have become increasingly key to fostering a safer workplace environment. But, how exactly do you encourage employee buy-in when it comes ...

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of EHS Today, create an account today!