Opinion | ‘How to Stay Safe at the Kitchen Counter’ Is the Safety Talk We Never Thought We Needed

By: | April 15, 2021

Michelle Kerr is Workers' Compensation Editor for Risk & Insurance, and chair of the annual National Comp conference. She can be reached at [email protected]

Like many of you, I’ve been working remotely for more than a year now. It’s been an adjustment in so many ways, like the fact that an ergonomics expert I just met from the UK has already met two of my cats.

I don’t know how long I’ll be working remotely — maybe permanently even if part-time. I’m lucky enough though. I had to leave behind my beloved adjustable standing desk last March, but at least I had a decent desk at home. No proper office chair? My employer had one shipped to me in no time flat.

Like I said … lucky. But plenty of remote workers haven’t been. That’s an issue on my mind since a recent conversation with Jon Abbott, director at Cardinus Risk Management based in London.

Those facing the biggest risks are those living in smaller spaces, Abbott explained.

Imagine a young worker in a tiny city apartment. If you don’t have the space for a desk, what do you do? You use the dining room table, the kitchen counter, your couch, your bed … whatever works. If you don’t have an office chair, maybe a dining room chair, a stool or the end of the bed are your best options.

“I don’t think the traditional ergonomics approach can work unless you’ve got people who are using ergonomic equipment,” he said. But that’s an area where employers can still have an impact. It’s about meeting people where they live … literally. In the form of education.

“It’s a really simple process to say to people, ‘Look, if you’re working on a couch, it’s not ideal, but this is how to work safely while on a couch. And if you get discomfort, this is what you need to do,’ ” Abbott said.

It’s equally important that the message being delivered is sympathetic, he added. For an employee in a 200 sq. ft. studio apartment, there may not be much an employer can do about the physical workspace. But they can educate, and they can be supportive, said Abbott.

“I should at least have a plan to talk to you about taking regular breaks or stepping away from your machine, stretching, keeping the soft tissue oxygenated. Even though an employer may not necessarily have a solution, they need to have a plan of communication so that people feel supported.”

Although opinions vary on the scale of it, most people agree that remote work will hold its traction. In a recent remote workforce survey from Capgemini Research Institute, 45% of employees and 48% of executives said they expect they’ll work remotely three days or more per week going forward.

Take that and multiply it by this: A recent Chubb survey showed 41% of respondents were experiencing new or increased pain since they began working from home. A whole lot of injuries in the making and a whole lot of claims.

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“If they go on to develop an injury, they’re going to file a claim, whether it’s health care or workers’ comp, it doesn’t matter. It’s going to get you one way or the other,” Abbott said.

Taking action is imperative. What that looks like for your organization is an important discussion to open. There are tools at the disposal of employers. Companies like Abbott’s provide virtual ergonomic assessments and many other services.

At a bare minimum, give your people real-world strategies for preventing remote-work injuries and offer support. The future health of your employees — and your organization — depend upon it.

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