A few months into 2021, it seems that we’re approaching a turning point in the COVID-19 pandemic that may see more of the country relaxing public health guidelines. As a result, employers are reevaluating their work policies and finding that a return to complete pre-pandemic normalcy is unlikely, and maybe even undesirable.
Research suggests that more than 80% of employers feel that changing to remote work was a successful way to maintain operations during the pandemic. As much as 60% of American workers had shifted to remote working at points throughout 2020, and though many are returning and will start spending more time in the office, it’s clear that remote work is here to stay. For employers, this implies a major shift in thinking, as EHS managers will now need to account for ergonomic injury risks for their remote workers as well as their on-site employees.
(Learn more in Got Staff Working Remotely? Using Your Working Alone Procedures During COVID-19)
Remote Work Will Split the Workforce
Already, some of the largest employers in the nation have committed to having more of their employees work remotely in the future. Twitter, Facebook, and Google have all announced permanent or semipermanent shifts to remote work for many computer-based employees, and smaller employers across industries are likely to follow suit to some degree. This will add to the roster of remote workers who already exist in the technology, utility, and field service industries.
Remote work has revealed a host of benefits for employers, including lower overhead costs and, in some cases, happier employees. Company executives are taking note of the changes — a recent survey revealed that over 50% of executives felt their employees had become more productive while working from home, while 56% indicated they believe that remote work would be a major part of how their companies operate into the foreseeable future. It has been happening for years, but is now being embedded into other functions more traditionally done in a central location.
Equally important is that employees themselves feel strongly about continuing to have work-from-home available as an option, with nearly a third of respondents to a recent survey indicating they would stay at home five days per week, given the choice.
However, not all types of employees are able to do their jobs remotely, and large portions of the workforce will continue to operate on-site. While desktop-based employees are likely to spend more time working from home, workers in manufacturing, healthcare, retail, warehousing and many other industries will continue to work in company facilities or sites.
Ergonomic Risk Is Growing for Remote and On-Site Workers
Recent data shows that the move to remote work does not come without risk. A New York Times report published in September of 2020 highlighted the increasing rates of ergonomics-related discomfort and pain, noting that 92% of chiropractors report their patients are experiencing more back and neck pain and other musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).
The causes vary, but safety leaders point chiefly to the lack of ergonomic workspaces and equipment in most employees’ homes. Instead of sitting in ergonomic office chairs, they’re sitting at kitchen tables and on couches. Instead of looking at a height-adjusted monitor on a desk (or even a standing desk), employees may be using laptops, causing them to look down for hours at a time while working. Instead of moving around to grab coffee, attend meetings, and commute to and from the office, employees are simply sitting at home for most of the day. These hazards compound the chances of an acute musculoskeletal injury and chronic pain related to ergonomic factors.
Likewise, ergonomic risks have compounded over the past year thanks to a host of new stressors that impact both business operations and personal wellness. Employees who primarily work on-site have particularly felt the impact of pandemic-era stress. Social distancing, mask-wearing, and new work arrangements have combined with anxieties over loved ones and friends, isolation, and financial stress — and employees are experiencing the fallout. Those stressors can also contribute to fatigue and mental health issues, both of which are tied to higher injury risk.
It’s clear that work today and in the future will involve a blend of working styles. Safety leaders will need to look for versatile solutions that can scale flexibly to address ergonomic risk across a wide range of applications and scenarios.
That’s where virtual ergonomics come in.
Work-from-Home and Remote Safety: The Value of Virtual Ergonomics
Employers can mitigate new injury risks and avoid rising safety costs by integrating ideas such as virtual ergonomic assessments, desktop ergonomics software and other new technologies into their existing safety programs. Beyond remote and home-based employees, virtual and technology-based solutions are also easy to adapt for on-site workers, workstations and departments. Remote and lone workers too need that support, which can be implemented via wearable technology and apps that bring safety training on conditioning and mobility to them.
To achieve the best results, safety leaders should look to create a mix of virtual and technological solutions that support work environments, workstations, and mechanics.
Where to Start: Virtual Ergonomic Assessments
The pandemic has spurred safety leaders to develop new solutions for evolving workforces, and workers can now benefit from virtual ergonomic assessments that essentially replicate the on-site assessment for each employee’s personal workspace.
Use a virtual assessment to evaluate environmental and behavioral risk factors. These assessments can be applied to home workstations as well as on-site facilities, where an ergonomic evaluation will reveal potential hazards and provide a wealth of data to inform effective safety and wellness adjustments.
Virtual ergonomic assessments are typically carried out with basic video software. However, ergonomists have also developed innovative camera and sensor setups integrated with artificial intelligence (AI), which allows for richer analysis of work environments and equipment along with more detailed and accurate data on behavioral ergonomic risk at the individual level. This technology will likely prove especially useful for employers with complex facilities or operating in hazardous environments. For remote and lone workers, wearable technology helps to identify risks so that better training and equipment can be implemented.
(Find out How Wearables Can Change Behavior and Reduce Ergonomic Injuries)
Provide Ongoing Ergonomic Support with Virtual Self-Care and Mobility Programs
Safety leaders should also consider ways to empower employees to effectively manage their own ergonomic safety and wellness. Some employers are already adopting holistic Total Worker Wellness virtual ergonomic programming that combines personalized biomechanics training with tools to help employees care for their bodies. A smart multi-angle approach would include mobility training tailored to specific work sites, home offices, departments and individual employees, based on data collected from ergonomic assessments. Specialists can complement mobility training with self-care massage techniques and personalized exercise plans that target each worker’s particular areas of risk.
Technology can provide a third prong of protection. Ergonomic software, wearables, fatigue identification software and AI-enabled software can monitor risk factors and provide real-time data that allows for both self-correction and organizational interventions to prevent small issues from turning into costly injuries. Similar applications for desktop employees use push notifications and alerts to remind employees to use the techniques they’ve learned throughout their day, helping encourage regular movement and relieve muscle tension or soreness.
Helping Reduce Injuries for All Workers
Employers should be prepared for a future where mixed remote and on-site work is commonplace. Virtual and technology-enabled ergonomics present an opportunity for employers to foster better wellness among their workforces, regardless of where they do their jobs while reaping the financial benefits of lower injury costs.