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Research and Briefings

Could Ergonomics Injuries Be a Sleeper Issue for Your Organization During the Pandemic?


Ergonomic-related discomfort is on the rise. Almost half of Americans reported new or increased pain in their shoulders, back, or wrists since starting to work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic.  And the problem is not restricted to the US. A study of UK homeworkers found a significant increase in musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) and complaints, with more than half of the survey respondents reporting new aches and pains in the neck, shoulders, and back, compared to their normal physical activity.

With the number of new COVID-19 cases in the US trending upwards, it is likely that millions of employees across the country will continue to work remotely full or part time for the foreseeable future.

Remote workers are not the only ones facing ergonomic challenges. Essential workers have remained on the job, working longer hours and more shifts, leaving less downtime for recovery and placing greater demands on the body. In addition, new work practices meant to maintain distance between employees could be introducing new risks, especially if your people now have to twist or reach in ways that weren’t necessary beforehand.

What Does This Mean for Employers?

An analysis of data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Liberty Mutual, and the National Academy of Social Insurance shows that costs associated with MSDs during the first three quarters of 2020 have surpassed the annual cost during each of the past three years. In addition, researchers are estimating an increase of up to 16% in MSD claims over the next 12 to 18 months. The average cost of an individual ergonomic claim in the US stands at around $17,000, making ergonomic injuries a potentially large expense for employers.  

What Can Employers Do?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, most missed workdays from MSDs are due to injuries that happen because of poor workplace design. Ergonomics is often described as a “war of inches” and even minor adjustments, such as those made to one’s body posture, can result in major beneficial outcomes.

With the majority of employees hoping remote work becomes permanent, employers should consider outfitting employees with equipment that allows them to work more comfortably at home, including adjustable chairs, monitors, ergonomic keyboards, and other equipment that can minimize the risk of MSDs. And they should provide learning resources to help employees set up a safe remote workspace.

As we enter the new year, there is a glimmer of hope that the ongoing vaccination program will help end the spread of the virus. In the meantime, as COVID-19 continues affecting hundreds of thousands of people across the country, this may be a great time to review any new processes introduced due to the pandemic, including home workspaces and for the ongoing and eventual return to the office. But don’t stop there; instead, extend your review to your entire ergonomics program. Start by listing the gaps in your current ergonomics program and create an action plan for closing them, with target dates for completion. Even if your ergonomics program is yielding excellent results, it is paramount to conduct periodic checkups to keep it – and your employees – running at peak performance.

As we begin 2021, here are some questions your organization should consider.

  • Do you have an ergonomics program in place to address employees working remotely?
  • Does your organization periodically evaluate ergonomic-related hazards and job tasks?
  • Is there a process, system, and incentives in place to encourage early injury reporting? Do you provide office equipment to your remote workers?
  • Are you allowing employees to purchase equipment for their home if they are having discomfort?
  • Do you provide ergonomics guidelines for setting up a home office?
  • Do you have a process for home workers to report discomfort?
  • Do permanent homeworkers have a signed telecommuter agreement?

As the world continues to navigate through the pandemic, the way forward for employers is to focus on your people, who will, in turn take care of your business.