Ergonomics – Working From Home

During this pandemic, everything in our daily lives has undergone great change.  We’ve been asked to go from working in offices equipped with work chairs and workstations, to working at home where our comfy couch or easy chair might be where we choose to work.  During this disorienting time, when we pause to consider what hasn’t changed, it is, hopefully, our bodies. While our bones and backs haven’t changed, the risk factors for musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) have.

This is a quick note intended to make us aware of some of the ergonomic risk factors presented by working at home.  I say working at home, not from home, because no one is going anywhere anytime soon. The immediate need to avoid being infected or transmitting the COVID-19 virus means our workday no longer includes visiting with customers.

Here from OSHA’s ergonomics topic page are risk factors we need to consider for our new home offices.

Performing the same or similar tasks repetitively:

  • Performing the same motion or series of motions continually or frequently for an extended period of time.
  • Performing the same motion while using a computer trackpad can strain the wrist.

Working in awkward postures or being in the same posture for long periods of time:

  • Using positions that strain the body, such as prolonged or repetitive use of a mouse.
  • Focusing on a screen that is not at ideal height or distance or holding arms at awkward angles while typing.

Localized pressure into the body part:

  • Pressing the body or part of the body (such as the hand) against hard or sharp edges of a desk that is not at the correct height relative to your chair.

The biggest ergonomic risk factor we face now is duration.  Not just in terms of minutes or hours at our home workstations, but also for the consecutive days and even weeks we’ll be spending in our homes as we do our part to “flatten the curve.”  Spending minutes on your laptop checking email or Facebook at the kitchen table is a low-risk task. Spending a full workday with your laptop at the kitchen table may be a high-risk task for MSD.  Our home furniture was selected for qualities other than the primary factor we like to see in office furniture, namely, adjustability.   

Discussions of office ergonomics usually begin with the chair.  Our work has now become even more sedentary.  The first thing you’ll read about office chairs is that they need to be adjustable.  That may not be an option for your home workstation.  As an alternative, consider rotating chairs.  Move often to different spaces if that is a possibility. 

“We say, ‘Your next position is your best position,’” said Michelle Robertson, a lecturer at Northeastern University and the director of the Office Ergonomics Research Committee, a group of companies that fund ergonomic research. Sitting for a long time in the same position restricts blood flow and is not good for your muscles, she explained. You also need to focus your eyes on new objects and distances every 20 minutes or so to prevent eyestrain.[1]

Here are some work-at-home tips from Colorado State University[2]:

Use a good chair (if possible). If you don’t have a good chair, add pillows for back/leg support.
Raise your chair (most kitchen tables and desks are too high). Use a pillow as a seat cushion if needed.
Support your feet on a phone book, step stool, etc., if they don’t firmly touch the ground while sitting.
Raise your monitor using books, old shoe boxes, etc.
Use an external keyboard and mouse. It is essential that the monitor is separated from the keyboard/mouse. The top of the monitor should be at or slightly below eye level, shoulders relaxed with the elbows around 90 degrees.

If you are inclined to invest or upgrade furnishings for a home office, here are guidelines to consider.[3]

Chair – Should offer pneumatic seat-pan height adjustment, a backrest that tilts backward and forward, backrest tension control and lumbar support.
Adjustable workstation – Should offer height adjustability of work surface and have a large surface with ample room to perform tasks.
Keyboard/keyboard tray – Should lie flat and offer slope adjustability to achieve up to ± 15° slope and have a low profile (approximately 1″ or 30 mm).
Input device – Features should include a long cord for proper placement or wireless, should move easily and be usable by left- and right-handed users.
Monitor – Adjustable brightness and contrast, free from flicker and adjustable tilt.
Monitor arm/stand – Should be height-adjustable 27″ (69 cm) to 34″ (86 cm) above the seat pan and the weight of monitor should match the weight of the stand or arm.
Wrist rest – Should be constructed of compressible or soft material to reduce external pressure on the wrist and offer a non-friction surface.
Headset – Should be digital, rather than analog, and offer a quick-disconnect capability.
Footrest – Needs to be height adjustable from 11″ (28 cm) to 18″ (46 cm).
Task lighting – Should offer 75 to 140-foot candles of adjustable lighting and be asymmetrical to reduce shadows and glare spots.
Laptops – Use an external mouse and keyboard for extended periods of computer use and take regular breaks and change your posture when working for long periods of time.

Take a moment to evaluate your home workstation from an ergonomic perspective.

Here is the best checklist I have found for self-assessing your workstation.
And here is OSHA’s workstation checklist.

Ergonomics means fitting (adjusting) the task/job to the person, not fitting (selecting) a person for the job.  Checklists can be useful but don’t expect one correct answer.  There are no perfect configurations in terms of height of the monitor, distance from the monitor, height of the chair, angle of the backrest, placement of support, etc.   Listen to the feedback from your body: Where is the pain, soreness, strain? When are you comfortable? Make adjustments — experiment with your home workstation.  Do what you can to maintain neutral body positions to reduce strain and stress.

  • Hands, wrists, and forearms are straight, in-line and roughly parallel to the floor.
  • Head is level, forward facing, and balanced, in-line with the torso.
  • Shoulder sare relaxed and upper arms hang normally at the side of the body.
  • Elbows stay in close to the body and are bent between 90 and 120 degrees.
  • Feet are fully supported by the floor or a footrest may be used if the desk height is not adjustable.
  • Back is fully supported with appropriate lumbar support when sitting vertical or leaning back slightly.
  • Thighs and hips are supported and generally parallel to the floor.
  • Knees are about the same height as the hips with the feet slightly forward.

We advise our customers to encourage their employees to report ergonomic incidents early.  Reporting symptoms and concerns early allows for ergonomic interventions that can reduce the risk of MSD injuries.  In your home office, self-report. Listen  to the feedback from your body.  In addition to adjusting your workstation, take breaks to prevent the soreness from becoming serious.  This link from the Mayo Clinic shows videos of specific stretching exercises to combat typical office-related strains.

The Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers offers an App, PainPoint for Apple and Android, that goes through the process of identifying painful spots and possible mitigating actions.

Get comfortable. It’s more productive, and we may be in for a long haul.

Colden can conduct remote home office evaluations virtually through several digital platforms.  To discuss the home office ergonomic evaluation services offered by Colden please contact:

Peter Bulman, MS, CIH, CSP
Senior Consultant

Michael L. Howe, CIH
Principal / Senior Consultant