Working From Home Due to COVID? How's That Tendonitis?
I was reading an article this morning with my coffee. The article described how the COVID-created work-from-home cohort are experiencing physical discomfort as a result of their impromptu workstations. This reminded me of one of my learning opportunities from several years ago. This path of discovery opened my eyes on more than the immediate issue; it unveiled how in the absence of leadership, unseen undesirable conditions will exist and develop; that identifying and curing these conditions not only improves the issue itself but improves morale and performance; and that you must actively seek these issues out, even amongst the most senior of employees.
In a small but rapidly growing organisation, establishing an effective workplace safety committee is challenging. Time is limited and demands are excessive on all departments. I made it a practice to attend the [ESDC Open House](https://www.wsps.ca/Information-Resources/Topics/ESDC-Federal-Labour-Program-Open-House) in May every year, and to take along as many members of the Workplace Committee, supervisors, and everyone working in the Safety department I could convince to join me. A day out of the office with a group of co-workers and a free lunch thrown into the mix always enticed a few participants. These sessions are very informative for both the experienced and the novice in OHS. And it has a strong emphasis on the Federal workplace, which applied to us. One year, one of the many topics was the prevalence of Musculoskeletal Disease (MSD) injuries amongst clerical and administrative workers. It is the leading cause of lost time injuries. A high proportion of these claims became chronic long term (expensive, disabling) claims.
On the drive home we always have a group discussion on the highlights and low-points of the day. What we learned, best and worst info sessions. This year the MSDs session occupied a good part of the discussion time. It turns out, almost everyone in the car reported experiencing some degree of discomfort while working at their desk. That was the first cause for a pause, mentally. I was already working with one of my team who had reported experiencing discomfort. We had made some accommodations, although hadn’t really dug down into how the workplace might be the source. She had mentioned this discomfort was not limited to work and she was seeing a chiropractor who helped, albeit that relief was brief.
The number of discomfort comments on the drive home meant we had an unseen hazard; not recognised by management, workers or committee members. Time to take action: first step - establish how prevalent this is in the organisation. As with most offices the office staff sit for long periods of time, often on the phone and typing away on their computers at the same time. We also had forklift operators working in a high-volume warehouse setting, with high cube full load activities ongoing throughout the day.
A brief search of the internet provided a [Discomfort Survey](https://www.wsps.ca/WSPS/media/Site/Resources/Downloads/Discomfort_Survey_final.pdf?ext=.pdf) created by WSPS.
Using this form, we conducted a company wide survey. The results: approximately 90% of our workplace staff reported some degree of discomfort, ranging from mild to severe. The data showed that every level of employee, from the President to the newest front-line worker was experiencing one or more areas of discomfort that could be associated with their work activities. Other than the previously referenced comments by my team member, no one had requested an ergonomic device, (other than a mouse and mouse pad, which were already default items when ordering a new station), no one made a comment to their supervisor about discomfort, none reported discomfort to a member of their workplace safety committee members. Indeed, some of those experiencing discomfort either had been on the committee at some point or were currently on the committee. And that included me – once I saw my own discomfort survey. Days of heavy computer use were resulting in discomfort in fingers, wrists, elbows, shoulders and back. Other users were experiencing the same, as well as in other areas, such has hips and legs. Our employees were suffering in silence. Everyone thought that is just the way it is. It hurts to work.
Quantify What You Identify
Quantifying the degree of discomfort (we used a scale of 0 -10) helped us identify the seriousness of the problem. It also brought to our attention that several employees had previously un-reported medical conditions that were contributing to their discomfort. Compiling the information into metrics we identified our problems by severity, body parts, job function. In some the pain was constant and in the top 90th percentile.
Symptoms identified – time to identify the root causes and implement countermeasures.
Step 1 - Using a [workplace guide](https://www.wsps.ca/WSPS/media/Site/Resources/Downloads/Offc_Wrkstn_Dsgn_FINAL.pdf?ext=.pdf,) from WSPS we identified that monitor risers, keyboard trays, footrests, headsets and in some cases new chairs were required. We conducted follow up interviews one-on-one with each employee to validate the self-reporting and seek their input as to desired corrections. We distributed the headsets and other devices, providing guidance and the above worksheet to each employee. We ensured those reporting discomfort followed the guidelines for workstation design, where appropriate, working with the individual to optimise the improvements. For our warehouse workers we used a comparable guide and made small changes in processes and acquired devices to address their conditions.
Quality Process Matters
We waited 30 days and conducted a follow up survey. Those experiencing moderate discomfort on the initial survey were showing signs of significant improvement. But those at the 10th and 90th percentile showed lesser improvements. Those who had expressed little discomfort, and mostly declined to introduce ergonomic devices reported a slight uptick in discomfort. Those at the 90th percentile, showed either a slightly reduced level, or no change. Interviews identified that the 10th percentile had become more aware of their discomfort as their peers began to talk about the improvements this initiative was providing them. Easy fix bring them on board with our countermeasures and training. The 90th percentile, however, indicated that these changes had helped, but not fully alleviated the condition.
Step 2 – hire a pro.
We brought in Carrie Taylor from Taylor’d Ergonomics. Company wide general observations were made on all office workers, and specific observations on those reporting excessive discomfort (score 6 or above). Those in the 90th percentile got a one-on-one session with the ergonomist at their station. The report provided further recommendations. These were communicated, reviewed by the workplace committee and implemented, a team assigned to champion the project. Some minor investments in more advanced options, such as keyboard trays that convert between sit down and stand-up functionality and precise chair adjustments were implemented.
Follow Up- Measure Performance
6 months later we re-issued the discomfort survey. The frequency and severity of discomfort reported had dropped by over 70%. Most of the staff reported essentially no discomfort. Those who had pre-existing conditions were still reporting some discomfort but substantially less. As a result of this exercise, we standardized conducting the workplace discomfort survey at 90 days after hire, taking appropriate countermeasures, and again annually. We tracked our metrics to ensure no new trends were developing and maintained a workplace with significantly less discomfort, and hence reduced possibility of a workplace disability claim. And we identified who may have a condition that put specific employees at higher risk of MSDs allowing us to proactively address the issue.
Benefits Beyond The Initial Goal
And our employees universally appreciated the company’s attention to improving their working conditions. There was a noticeable positive impact on morale. That floating level we use to measure an organisation’s safety culture ticked up a few points during this exercise – permanently. The team worked together to help each other with workstation discomfort now. I gained some insights, and we likely saved the employer a few future disability claims in doing so, and most importantly, some workers health and quality of life.
And In A COVID Created Scenario?
When I became a freelancer a couple years later, I made sure my workspace at home was set up properly. But this does beg the question - how many companies who have sent their people home to work have given even a moment’s thought to what their work conditions are like? Did we realise that 14 months into it, we would still be here, with a horizon of at least a few more months? Have we considered the implications of having an employee work from a station that is not designed for that activity? How many have just a laptop and a mouse. No keyboard, no desk chair, perhaps not even a desk at all, but a table and chair whose height is designed for eating, not typing. Correct arm placement in the chair was one of the most common contributors to discomfort. Poor chairs and holding the phone against your ear while typing were the next highest culprits.
Our experience only came to light as we were together as a team and told what to look for. A worker at home, alone, fearful for their employment is unlikely to broach such a topic. The slow degenerative impacts will accrue. And perhaps year later, maybe two, the pain threshold will reach the point they go to see their doctor to be told is it mouse wrist or tennis elbow caused by the work environment. And then it is a workplace claim. How many of your team are suffering in silence, the longer-term result of which may be carpal tunnel, tendinitis or other such injuries?
Maybe try sending out the survey and compile the results?
If you would like more information, or to discuss how this played out in greater detail, please feel free to contact me.