What Employers Urgently Need to Know About Kitchen Table Ergonomics

January 9, 2023
WFH working from a kitchen table

Even before Covid-19 employers were already under increasing legal pressure to accommodate office workers with proper ergonomic workstations. In the post pandemic era this trend has dramatically accelerated, and at many companies, cemented into practice. One study by the ergonomics department of the University Cincinnati found that the vast majority of 843 surveyed staffers that were ordered to work from home in the spring of 2020 had pretty horrendous desk setups from an ergonomics perspective.

With millions of desk workers ordered to work from home for nearly a year now, with many converted to predominantly working from home on a permanent basis, employers need to consider the fact that liability for ergonomic injuries has now pierced the veil of the corporate campus. “Kitchen Table Ergonomics” is the new buzzword of the day, along with “Zoom Fatigue,” and employers need to be wide-eyed about the implications.

According to numerous studies conducted by the Department of Labor and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in commercial office settings, musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are the leading cause of pain, suffering, and disability in American workplaces, accounting for 33% of all workers’ compensation costs. Direct costs are estimated to exceed $20B a year, with total costs including lost productivity amounting to over $50B a year for American employers.

The good news is that with a little foresight, almost all that wasted expense could be eliminated. Of most fundamental importance in recent years has been getting employees out of their chairs. Ergonomic chairs with 17 adjustment levers were all the rage until someone figured out that the epidemic rise in ‘sitting disease‘ was being made worse by encouraging employees to sit even more hours every day in a more comfy chair. And so began the revolutionary multi-billion dollar conversion trend to sit-stand desks for all sedentary office workers.

Switching between sitting and standing throughout the day is indisputably better for workers’ health and productivity, so long as it doesn’t introduce new injury potential for lack of proper ergonomics. A good monitor arm, anti-fatigue mat and keyboard tray are still essential components of a proper ergonomic workstation. And nowadays most large employers are doing a good job of making sure an ergonomist visits with every employee on a regular basis to ensure that their office setup is cherry.

That is, until millions of workers were sent home without their ergonomically-tuned workstations.

The Cost of Doing Nothing

To help illustrate the cost of MSD-related injuries in the workplace, OSHA has developed the Estimated Costs of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses and Estimated Impact on a Company’s Profitability Worksheet. This free tool will calculate how much more profit your enterprise will have to produce to cover the cost of an occupational injury or illness. A small $30,000 workers’ compensation claim for a single case of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (easily addressable with a good keyboard tray, keyboard and mouse for under $1,000), for example, would require an enterprise with a 3% profit margin to generate at least $2,100,000 more in sales just to cover the cost.

In the romantic days of the pre-pandemic era, whatever an employee had for a desk setup in their home office was pretty much their own business. The most progressive employers would fund fully-ergonomic standing desks or treadmill desks for their employees who were permanently remote (estimated at 15% pre-covid), but for those who only worked from home sometimes they were usually responsible for their own computer equipment and furniture.

When switching from the kitchen counter to the family room sofa is your only choice, it’s only a matter of time before ergonomic RSIs set in.

Of the many research studies already out on post-covid WFH statistics, the most conservative estimates are that at least 35% of desk workers will now be working remote permanently, with great deal more expected to WFH part time in order to minimize intersecting with other employees except in rarely-occasioned, properly-distanced meetings back at the office. In tech companies some estimates range as high as 50%–65% of employees. Out of an estimated 100 million office workers in the US that means a huge number of people are being affected, many of whom are working at a kitchen table right now.

What’s Being Discussed in America’s Board Rooms Right Now

While the media has focused mostly on stories of how the pandemic has been reshaping the office of the future, children and pets photobombing and soundbombing video calls, and other maladies of our new working regime, the reality is that some two-thirds of commercial office spaces will not meet the CDC recommendations for safe distancing without massive investment in remodeling. And even then, there will be cases of COVID on the campus, and eventually, class action suits from lawyers who drum up complaints that the employer hasn’t done enough to protect its employees from cross-infection.

Senior management teams have a fiduciary duty to figure out how they’re going to contend with these future claims, quietly but actively consulting with their HR attorneys and insurance underwriters. Between the sheer cost of remodeling and the increased potential for litigation many employers, as you’ve surely read in the press, are opting to keep as many workers home as possible to avoid both. Commercial real estate leases coming to term are being renewed at record-low rates right now as the recession hits many of these companies’ financial health at the same time.

Make a Plan

Companies like Google have already told their newly-remote workers that they’ll reimburse up to $1,000 for any needed home office furniture, and have partnered with suppliers like iMovR to supply them with desks appropriate for their home office space and décor, and that don’t require professional installation. Due to social distancing requirements standing desks that require a lot of tools and skills and work space and patience to assemble, much less professional installation, are not selling very well into the home. Not to mention that office furniture that looks good on the campus might be dreadfully unappealing in someone’s home.

The new hybrid business model that has been working well has been to leverage the employer’s buying power by negotiating a coupon code discount for all purchases—not just for the desk but also for all the ergonomic accessories—and to let the employees make their own selections and even upgrade to nicer gear if they want to, since their purchase is being subsidized by their boss.

Given the nascent trend of class action suits against companies that don’t accommodate their sedentary workers with the option to stand, and the high cost of compensation claims for repetitive strain injuries (RSIs) from working in a bad posture, now is the ideal time for companies to give their home-bound desk workers a financial subsidy to get set up properly for the long haul.

imovr lander lite work from home standing deskSome employers we’ve interviewed expressed concern about investing in standing desk workstations for their home-bound employees when they don’t know if they’re going to have to lay some of them off or furlough them in the near future given economic uncertainties. Or concerned that employees might not want to come back to the office when the time comes because they prefer to work at their new standing desk.

The easy solution is to specify quick-install desks like the Lander, Lander Lite and z that can be just as easily be disassembled and tossed in the car to be relocated back to their old office. The trick is to make sure whichever desk is purchased is also ANSI/BIFMA certified so there are no problems bringing it into the enterprise.

The one thing that is certain is that letting poor ergonomics go on too long leads to far greater expense than investing in proper setups for all employees, on campus and off.

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