Why Home Office Ergonomics Matters
Every year, nearly 300,000 employees miss work due to musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). MSDs are disorders of the muscles, ligaments, tendons, cartilage, joints, nerves or spinal discs that have been diagnosed by a physical exam, medical history or a specific medical test. Injuries to the muscles and skeleton are the most common “lost time” illnesses in nearly every industry. According to the Institute of Medicine, it is estimated that the costs associated with MSDs—compensation, lost wages and lost productivity—are between $45 and $54 billion annually.
To better understand how to minimize and prevent injury to the musculoskeletal system, you should be familiar with the major parts of this system, which include bones, muscles, ligaments, tendons and cartilage. Bones provide structural support and are connected at joints, which allows movement between body segments. Muscles contract and shorten, causing movement or just contract to ensure stability. The respiratory and circulatory systems supply the nutrients and oxygen necessary for the movement of the muscles.
Ligaments connect bone to bone and provide stability at the joints, while tendons attach muscles to the bone. Cartilage provides the joints with low friction surfaces that help with movement. Musculoskeletal disorders typically result from gradual or chronic development, as opposed to an acute event or injuries like falls or slips.
Why care about office and computer ergonomics? Even though MSDs tend to be gradual or chronic injuries, it is essential to work safely every day to prevent the development of these types of injuries. While there are no federal standards for ergonomics, OSHA has covered ergonomics in the workplace under section 5(a)(1) – the General Duty Clause, which requires employers to provide a work environment free from recognized hazards.
With the recent development of everyone working from home, your improvised workspace may not be configured to prevent ergonomic injuries. Are you working from your kitchen table, couch or a desk tucked into a spare bedroom? What about your phone? Do you have a headset for long conversations or virtual meetings? Can you use your speakerphone or is there too much background noise? Maybe you have been sitting for long periods and not taking frequent breaks. How do you feel? At the end of the day is your neck stiff, does your back hurt? How about your hands and wrists? Are your eyes tired? Awkward postures, uncomfortable desk configurations, inadequate lighting and infrequent breaks could all lead to long-term, chronic MSDs.
What can you do now to prevent future injures? Plan your workday. Where will you put your computer? Do you have a clean work surface and adequate lighting? Assess your body position in the work area. Your workstation should be adjustable to fit your body. For example, your chair should have a backrest that fits your back as well as armrests to take the load off your back. Chairs should be adjusted so your knees are bent at about a ninety-degree angle and allow your feet to rest flat on the floor. If you do not have an “office” chair in your home office, you may use a small pillow or rolled-up towel to support your back. A small box or yoga block could be an improvised footrest. Furniture and equipment should be positioned to prevent excessive twisting, reaching and leaning. For example, your monitor or screen should be placed just below eye level. Do you have enough light in your work area? Insufficient lighting may lead to eye strain.
In addition to your chair and monitor, it’s essential to consider how you use your keyboard. When your fingers are on the keyboard, your wrist should be straight in a neutral position with the upper arm vertical and the forearm at a 90-degree angle to the upper arm. Your shoulders should be relaxed, and your elbows close to your sides. You should also avoid reclining and reaching.
When using a mouse, you should be able to maintain the correct arm and wrist position. The mouse should be at the same level as the keyboard and the same distance from your body as the keyboard.
Signs of an injury to the muscle or skeleton can often be overlooked or considered as general fatigue. MSDs can often compound on themselves; an injury to your lower back can lead to incorrect posture, which can impact the upper back, shoulders and even the arms or hands. Ensure that you have the necessary equipment for your home office to continue to work safely and without risk of injury.
Finally, don’t forget to take frequent breaks. Stretch, move around, take time away from looking at screens. Carve out time for meals away from your work area and have a set time to end your workday.
If you need additional equipment for your home office, consult with your employer to see what options are available.
Skillsoft course suggestions:
“Nonfatal Occupational Injuries and Illnesses Requiring Days Away From Work.” Bureau of Labor Statistics. U.S. Department of Labor.
“Work-Related Musculoskeletal Disorders & Ergonomics.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“OSHA – General Duty Clause 5(a)(1).” Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Donna McEntee is the Director, EHS Compliance Products at Skillsoft