Following Ergonomic Best Practices Amid COVID -19

Following Ergonomic Best Practices Amid COVID -19
ISE Magazine March 2021 Volume: 53 Number: 3
By Timothy (Tim) Pottorff

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned the world up-side down more so than since World War II and the flu pandemic of 1918. The advantage we had in 2020 was a combination of greater scientific knowledge and ability, combined with modern communications that allowed millions of people around the world to transition from working in offices to working at home. However, millions more people, particularly those in food processing and manufacturing, did not have the option of working at home during lockdowns that lasted for months and affected nearly every person in the world in one way or another.

Here we will focus on both the work-at-home employee and those who remained in manufacturing and processing operations, as well as provide guidance on the issues that have arisen and best practices for mitigating ergonomics risks while following COVID-19 best practices.

From an injury perspective, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported for 2019 that more than half of the occupational illnesses and injuries requiring days away from work related to a potential ergonomics issue: strains, sprains, soreness and pain. In my prior professional experiences, we found that about 40% of both lost-time claims and severity (cost of claims) were due to ergonomics-related causes.

From a regulatory perspective, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and occupational health and safety executives in most countries around the world have “general duty” clauses that require companies maintain work-places free of recognized hazards. These workplaces include not only traditional offices, manufacturing and processing operations, but also the work-at-home environment. European Union countries, as well as Mexico, also require companies to conduct assessments of all work processes, tasks and workstations for ergonomics risks. This also includes home office workstations.

Within the U.S., California has a requirement within its Injury & Illness Prevention Program Standard (IIPP) that re-quires attention be paid to employee complaints of discomfort. It also has the 1994 Cal/OSHA Ergonomics Standard for General Industry, along with the occupationally specific 2018 Cal/OSHA Hotel Housekeeper Musculoskeletal Injury Prevention Program (MIPP) Standard. The state of Maine requires employees receive computer workstation ergonomics training, and New Hampshire requires companies to “evaluate all incidences of ergonomically related injuries.”

Working from home creates problems

For employees told to work at home, “for the next few weeks” during the early stages of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, many companies did little more than send their team members home with a laptop computer and normal productivity expectations. A Sept. 4, 2020, article in The New York Times reported on a survey from the American Chiropractic Association that 92% of respondents to an April 2020 survey said that patients were reporting more pain in their neck, back or other issues (see accompanying article on Page 32).

An unscientific social poll I conducted resulted in about 46% of respondents saying they had ergonomics issues working from home. Respondents to a survey of the Northeastern Illinois Chapter of the American Society of Safety Professionals showed that 50% of those responding themselves (or a family member) had ergonomics problems from working at home. A teammate reported that one of his clients surveyed all of their work-at-home employees and 47% reported they had pain or discomfort of some level, which validates the earlier unscientific numbers.

For employees working at home, the key is posture and support. A traditional kitchen chair is not going to suffice. A neighbor of ours is an engineer with a large international company. He experienced deep vein thrombosis that required life-saving surgery after he had been working his usual extended hours on a kitchen chair. Thus, an adjustable chair with padded seat, backrest and armrests is critical.

I do not recommend the “two-hour” chairs sold at many big-box stores but do recommend that people choose a brand-name refurbished chair at a significant discount from the retail price. The other thing is chair “fit.” One size does not fit all. I have worked with clients ranging in size from 4 feet, 10 inches tall to 6 feet, 8 inches.

The other working-at-home aspect is relatively easy to address. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, well before COVID-19 induced work-at-home orders, did not recommend that laptop computers be used as a primary computing device. Rather, the CDC has for years recommended that laptop computers be coupled with a docking station and peripheral accessories such as monitor, keyboard and mouse.

People who wear eyeglasses with progressive lenses will need to keep their monitors lower; people without such lenses will want to raise their monitors so the top of the screen is about eye level (as recommended for monitors in “regular” offices).

While laptop monitors have grown and can often be used as primary monitor screens, there is no substitute for having a separate keyboard and mouse. These can be purchased from many outlets; however, I recommend a midrange option for the keyboard. People who do not frequently use a 10-key pad can benefit from the smaller size of a compact keyboard, which helps reduce reaches to the mouse pointing device.

Adapting needs to employees’ specs

In industrial settings, we want to always consider the design of workstations and tools; we want to keep people safe; we want a good facility layout; and we want to be cognizant of the human interaction between people, materials and equipment. With COVID-19, many companies installed various plexiglass guards and barriers to limit the movement of droplets between people unable to work more than 6 feet apart. The key to good ergonomics design, however, is to avoid the conundrum of solving one problem yet simultaneously creating another. Barriers and guards improperly designed and/or installed will increase the risk for future work-related soft tissue injuries and illnesses.

Two key anthropometric considerations in the science of ergonomics are the hand reach distance from the center of the body (not the belly) and the height of the point of operation of the hands, i.e., “where” the hands are when they are performing “work.” Some areas where process engineers and designers frequently fail is when they design for themselves or an “average”-sized person. The goal of applying anthropometric data in process design is to accommodate as many people as possible.

My late professor at Kansas State University, Stephan Konz, would show diagrams of people of various shapes and sizes during his ergonomics lectures that I remember to this day. We want to design forward reaches for the smallest people and work heights for the tallest people.

Unfortunately, when we start making changes within a process with the laudable goal of protecting people from potential exposures to COVID-19, we must not forget the capacity of the human body and the physical demands of the job.

Many best practices for COVID-19 involve health screenings and temperature checks. But if the temperature checks are being performed by a person with a hand-held scanner, the risk for potential ergonomics-related shoulder rotator cuff issues may arise due to the extension of the arm (posture) and the frequency (repetition) of scanning dozens of employees checking in before their shift. Usually repetition is not a huge issue unless coupled with force exertion, an awkward posture, extended duration or another ergonomics risk factor. But coupling an extended arm posture with frequent repetition may definitely manifest in an upper extremity soft tissue disorder.

Barriers and guards are used to separate people, but the challenge is to avoid forcing employees to contort their bodies while performing their jobs, which they often do in places that have not previously paid close attention to good work design.

Many places added a requirement for employees to wear gloves. The use of gloves is another “classic” ergonomics risk factor. Gloves that are too small or tight are going to restrict blood circulation and can cause nerve compression. Gloves that are too large, bulky or loose will reduce a person’s gripping ability. This will then require the person to apply even greater hand forces to accomplish a job task.

I strongly encourage companies making any modifications to processes or equipment due to COVID-19 or any other reason to engage in an independent ergonomics assessment of the existing process and/or plans for future modification or operation. Only when a company’s key leaders know exactly how employees will interact with a new or modified process can they be confident they have reduced the risk of work-related illnesses and injuries.