WFH Ergonomics Survey From University of Cincinnati Is In, And The News Is Not Great

December 10, 2020
kitchen table ergonomics

With limited funding for broad-based studies it isn’t uncommon for a university to use its own faculty and staff as cohorts in a study. And in this case, with 4,500 personnel told to work from home (“WFH”), ergonomics researchers at the University of Cincinnati actually had a perfect cohort in their fellow co-workers for this study, titled The Home Office: Ergonomic Lessons From the “New Normal”. What they looked at was just how horrible most people’s home office setups were from an ergonomics standing, with the pandemic sprung rather suddenly on everyone at once.

The findings of the survey, which 843 employees participated in, did not shock us. As we recently wrote in our own exploration of What Employers Need to Know About Kitchen Table Ergonomics, we deal with millions of site visitors a year and we haven’t been hearing about much other than stories of the slings and arrows of kitchen table ergonomics, ever since the first lockdowns began in the spring of 2020.

But perhaps to HR managers everywhere this news will be an eye opener as to just how unprepared most employees were for a prolonged WFH endurance contest.

Highlights From The Survey

ergonomics of wfh desks One common setup for WFH employees with bad ergonomics includes a cramped laptop keyboard and an offset LCD monitor, forcing users to crane their necks to the side for many hours, instead of looking straight ahead.

The research team of six was led by Dr. Kermit G. Davis, the graduate program director of the Industrial Hygiene and Occupational Ergonomic Program within the Department of Environmental and Public Health Sciences at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Medicine. The ergonomic evaluations of the home workstations identified many issues that could be adversely affecting the workers.

Many chairs were the wrong height with about 41% of them being too low. Fifty-three percent of workers had armrests on their chairs, but 32% did not use them and for 18% of workers the armrests were improperly adjusted, the study found. Davis noted that not using the armrests causes contact stress on forearms when rested on the hard front edge of work surfaces and strain across the upper back, as the arms need support.

Also, support of the back of the chair was not used by 69% and often without any lumbar support for 73% of survey participants. That meant many individuals did not have proper support of their lower back, maintaining the lumbar curvature.

The position of a computer monitor was often too low or off to the side. Three quarters of monitors were just the ones built into the users’ laptops, which were too low relative to the workers’ eye height, the study found. This is a classic setup for eye strain and neck strain, with each mere inch of forward tilt of the head adding 10 lbs to the load on neck muscles.

ergonomic disasters A chair without the right forearm support, lumbar support, and height adjustments is inadequate for properly positioning workers sitting at their computers for hours on end, but they are still commonly found in home offices.

External monitors were also routinely set up too low for 52% of survey participants. Another common issue with the monitors was not having the primary screen centered in front of the workers. This occurred with a whopping 31% of workers. Having to glance aside for the primary monitor results in neck strain from twisting of the neck and/or back, according to the scientists.

Laptop keyboards are also substantially smaller than regular-sized keyboards, forcing ulnar deviation of the wrists, which is another classic setup for developing carpal tunnel syndrome.

See the complete study for more details, but you get the picture. While a small percentage of workers already had proper workstations at home—perhaps a sit-stand desk or even a treadmill desk, but at the very least a solid ergonomic chair, a good monitor arm, good keyboard tray and ergonomic keyboard to put on it—the vast majority of the suddenly-working-from-home staffers did not.

Is It Worth the Cost of Properly Equipping Home-Officing Employees Now?

Some ten months into the pandemic at this writing, with much of the country going back on lockdown and the majority of the nation’s one hundred million office workers still working from home, it’s going to take at least six more months—and probably more like 12–24 months for most of them to return to a commercial office environment.

At the commercial office campus, their ergonomic needs are probably better addressed than at home; indeed a compelling reason to want to return to the daily commute. (Ironically, many of these workers have great ergonomic setups gathering dust at the office but company policies prohibit them from taking any of that equipment home due to security or liability issues.)

For most workers, the WFH adventure will likely last a year and a half to three years, with experts predicting 35% of the work force will never return to campus. That’s a long time to rack up OSHA / Workman’s Comp / Labor & Industries claims. See our Kitchen Table Ergonomics article for details on what carpal tunnel syndrome and other repetitive strain injuries (“RSIs”) typically cost in health care expenses and lost productivity. It ain’t cheap.

Companies that could afford it (especially Big Tech) almost immediately deputized their ergonomics and HR departments to reimburse employees anywhere from $1,000 to $2,000 to let them get properly set up for the long haul. But hundreds of thousands of employers, perhaps more impacted by the recessionary forces of the pandemic, have been dragging their feet. Then there are those employees that dispensed only a measly couple of hundred bucks as a subsidy, expecting employees to go mostly out of pocket for their home office needs.

The result of delaying action may wind up costing the less progressive employers a lot more in the long run.

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