OSHA Can Fine You for Ergonomic Work-from-Home Hazards. Here’s What You Should Do About That

As we approach almost a full year since office closures and work-from-home mandates, this National Ergo Conference session delves into the various ways to incorporate ergonomics into your remote work setting. 
By: | February 16, 2021

A new National Ergonomics Conference virtual session going live on Feb. 24 will address ergonomics at home, highlighting global jurisdictional differences and the challenges inherent in working from home in the modern world.

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Office closures are still commonplace worldwide as COVID-19 vaccine distribution slowly rolls out. For many workers, that still means a major shift to accommodate multiple monitors, an office chair and other typical workstation necessities in a space not designed for them.

Jon Abbott, director of sales and marketing at Cardinus Risk Management Ltd., and Bill Pace, Cardinus’ president, will address these and other home office-specific concerns in their presentation for National Ergo Conference participants.

“The session is about home office environments and the challenges of home working in a practical sense. We have the ideology of giving everyone a desk, a chair, a keyboard and a mouse, but that can’t always apply, because people’s apartments and houses are getting smaller, and they don’t have the space,” said Abbott.

“We’re going to talk about global regulatory requirements and what organizations operating outside of U.S. borders need to do. We’ll also be talking about the challenge of technology with children in the house.”

Mastering the Home Environment

Aside from space, the home office environment is also a significant risk for ergonomics professionals to manage.

“The reality is that there are ergonomics regulations in a lot of countries around the world, but those regulations cannot apply right now, because we’re talking about ergonomics in an environment where ergonomics does not exist — so what are your legal responsibilities in countries where you simply cannot comply with ergonomic laws?” Abbott said.

In the U.S., employers are not specifically required to provide workstation equipment ergonomically geared toward the particular worker, but the majority of employers have an obligation under the OSHA General Duty clause to “furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.”

Ergonomic hazards are recognized by OSHA. The EU, like the U.S., has a similar provision in its OSHA Framework Directive that employers are to “take appropriate preventive measures to make work safer and healthier.”

The need for such preventative measures couldn’t be greater in the COVID age. A July 2020 study from “Ergonomics in Design: The Quarterly of Human Factors Applications,” which assessed photos of workstations (with individuals using them) from University of Cincinnati employees submitted via a survey, found a variety of issues.

These included chairs of the wrong height (41% too low and 2% too high), chairs with a hard sitting surface (63%) and three respondents whose workstation was not a workstation at all, i.e. a couch or bed.

Further, the support of the back of the chair went entirely unused by 69% of respondents, and 73% lacked lumbar support.

The authors recommended simple changes like wrapping arm rests that aren’t adjustable and placing a pillow for lumbar support as potential low cost fixes, at least as a temporary salve while workers who would otherwise have an office to go to are not able to leave home for work.

The Mayo Clinic also provides a simple guide to home office configuration that can assist in the basics if an assessment isn’t possible. They recommend:

  • A chair that supports spinal curves;
  • Keeping key objects like a stapler close to the body to avoid reaching;
  • Placement of the keyboard and mouse on the same level;
  • A headset for the telephone;
  • A footrest if the available chair does not allow the worker to keep their feet flat on the floor;
  • Keeping the main monitor an arm’s length in front of the eyes, with the brightest light source off to the side.

Additional preventative measures can include a number of interventions that aren’t equipment focused, including online tools and assessments, like the NIOSH lifting assessment tool available from the CDC and the REBA (Rapid Entire Body Assessment) tool, which tabulates scores by body region (wrists, forearms, elbows, shoulders, neck, trunk, back, legs and knees).

These tools are also a key offering from Cardinus, which was a progenitor of such web-based services.

“Cardinus is the original company that developed online ergonomics tools, since 1996,” said Abbott. “We’re also globally the biggest provider of online tools to manage ergonomics risks. We provide a true end-to-end ergonomics management journey that incorporates configured online, e-learning and self-assessment, full ergonomics management and global virtual assessment capabilities in 191 countries around the world.”

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Cardinus is also currently providing short- and long-term solutions for U.S. companies as part of its COVID response. These include HSE and compliance e-learning, global ergonomics expertise, remote worker solutions, HSE global consultancy, and security, behavioral and travel safety assistance for a holistic approach to employee and organization protection.

Tackling the Toughest Injuries

Cardinus cites the huge cost of musculoskeletal injuries, many tied to poor ergonomic intervention or a lack of ergonomic intervention, as a major reason to deploy an organization-wide ergonomics program including the compliance piece.

“Across the European Union, musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are the biggest cause of absence from work, accounting for 40% of workers’ compensation costs and a reduction of around 1.6% of the gross domestic product,” Abbott said.

“In the U.S., similar statistics show MSDs account for 33% of all workers’ compensation costs, with a direct cost of approximately $20 billion to the U.S. economy,” Abbott notes.

Those interested in learning more can tune in to the National Ergo Conference & Expo session here&

Nina Luckman is a business journalist based in New Orleans, focusing primarily on the workers' compensation industry. Over the last several years, Nina has served as Editor of Louisiana Comp Blog, a news site she started in 2014 under the auspices of a group self-insurance fund. She can be reached at [email protected]

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