The Real Price of Working From Home: What the Pandemic Shows Us
Working at home may be the new normal, but it doesn’t come without costs.
Employees who incur cumulative trauma injuries attributed to working at home may bring workers compensation claims that dwarf what it would have cost to modify behavior or purchase specialized equipment to resolve the issue.
Finding ways to prevent repetitive injuries among staff working at home will be the focus of the virtual session “Ergonomics: Working from Home is the New Normal, Not a New Injury” at the RIMS LIVE 2021 conference scheduled for April 19-30.
The session will be presented by Michelle Despres, vice president of business development and national clinical leader for One Call Physical Therapy, headquartered in Jacksonville, Fla.
Work from Home: As Convenient as It Is Stressful
The interest in working at home has skyrocketed since the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 that prompted many societal changes, not the least of which was a move made on the fly by many businesses to send millions of employees home to work rather than in offices where they were at more risk of contracting the deadly illness.
“Prior to COVID-19 remote work was largely considered a perk and was implemented with structured requirements,” Despres said.
“The shift to remote work has had the unintended consequence of placing individuals at risk for discomfort and, ultimately, cumulative trauma type injuries resulting from poor ergonomics.”
Whether an employee is working at a kitchen table, in a makeshift office in a dark corner of their basement, or on a couch with a laptop balanced on their knees, these work-at-home work situations can cause physical stresses and discomfort that add up over time, and lead to costly injury claims.
As the pandemic slowly resolves, concerns about the potential for repetitive injuries are not expected to lessen as it seems working at home situations will become permanent for many companies.
In the session, Despres will cover recent research including a study by The Pew Research Center which reports that 71% of employees currently work at home compared to just 20% prior to the pandemic.
The study also found that 54% want to continue to work at home after the pandemic ends.
Ensuring a Safe Work Environment from Afar
Despres will discuss measures an employer can take to prevent cumulative trauma type injuries, which are defined as injuries of the musculoskeletal and nervous systems that are caused by repetitive tasks, forceful exertions, vibrations, mechanical compression or sustained postures.
Despres says the first step an employer should take to prevent such injuries is to understand the problems employees may be having.
“Consider implementing an ergonomics program, one that starts with a technology driven self-assessment tool with built-in self-corrective measures,” Despres said. “This program also will identify those employees that have either resolved (their issue) or are at an optimal ergonomic state versus those that need additional intervention.”
Despres noted that her company works with various providers of assessment tools that are powered by artificial intelligence and enable solutions to be individualized. It’s also possible via these programs for an employer to do a virtual assessment of the conditions of a worker’s home office.
“This might start with a checklist of remote work requirements and even a virtual tour of the workspace,” she said. “It could also include education and a checklist to guide the set-up of a remote worker’s work station.”
The solutions that are recommended, whether it’s a behavioral change or an equipment purchase, are geared to the particular person.
It might be suggested that a person would benefit, for instance, from an arm rest or an adjustable chair or from a simple change in posture or movement such as standing up, going for a walk on occasion or taking their eyes of the computer screen briefly.
Despres noted that employers often are concerned that utilizing a self-assessment program will generate costs for expensive equipment, and that employees may push for equipment that they don’t need.
“That’s where we run into the biggest concern that an employer has before they implement a program,” she said. “They don’t want to be on the fence for an expensive outlay of dollars for equipment unnecessarily.”
At the conclusion of of a self-assessment, she said it is common for employees to be only offered equipment that would benefit them rather than a smorgasbord of choices.
In addition, if needed, an employer can deploy a specialist virtually to help an employee correct the behavior or equipment that’s causing them problems.
Despres will cover some pilot cases during the session including one that her company conducted of its own associates. The pilot self-assessment found that 93% of those invited participated, 27% of participants were flagged as having some level of risk that required a professional ergonomist intervention (delivered virtually), and only 4.6% required equipment to resolve their concerns and discomfort.
In studies conducted by One Call, she said the most common equipment need has been for a chair, and the average cost of the chairs was under $200.
Despres will also share the results of case study done of 444 employees in the Los Angeles County Tax and Treasurer Departments who completed the risk assessment and training. The study found that 57 participants required equipment to resolve their issue.
The average cost of the equipment was $21.67 per person for a total spend of $9,622, which is much less expensive than a worker’s compensation claim, she said.
Despres wants attendees at the session to understand that ergonomic solutions don’t have to break the bank and are far less costly than paying out a claim.
A single carpal tunnel claim can cost anywhere from $34,000 to $64,000, she noted.
“A comprehensive ergonomics program complete with the technology to deliver self-assessments with targeted self-corrective measures, professional ergonomist intervention, and equipment procurement costs less than $40,000 for a mid-large size company of 1,000 employees,” she said.
That doesn’t take into account the other costs that are incurred when employees are working while injured or in discomfort, which include a loss of productivity, efficiency, and the ability to complete tasks.
Despres said that establishing an ergonomics program for at-home workers can help business run smoothly and safely even when their staff isn’t on site.
“By correcting alignment, improving behavioral strategies, and addition of specific equipment when needed, a company can improve comfort, productivity, results, and a reduction in injury risk,” she said. &