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Don't Forget Ergonomics Away from the Office

Employees who work from home or travel for work should be taught to assess their ad hoc workspaces for ergonomic risks, said Marilyn Ekdahl Ravicz, author of Ergonomics for Home-Based Workers: Use Your Brain to Save Your Body (Abbott Press, 2013).

Using poorly set up devices while working on the road, or from home, can cause a range of injuries to the musculoskeletal or nervous systems, noted Ravicz, an anthropologist who has redesigned workstations in office settings and homes.

Especially common are repetitive strain injuries (RSIs) that may be caused by repeated tasks or sustained, awkward positions. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reports that RSI affects about 1.8 million workers per year.

OSHA’s checklist for proper computer use recommends:

  • Head and neck upright, in line with the torso.
  • Head, neck and trunk facing forward.
  • Trunk perpendicular to the floor (may lean back into backrest but not forward).
  • Shoulders and upper arms in line with the torso, generally about perpendicular to the floor and relaxed.
  • Upper arms and elbows close to the body.
  • Forearms, wrists and hands straight and in line (forearm at about 90 degrees to the upper arm).
  • Wrists and hands straight.
  • Thighs parallel to the floor and lower legs perpendicular to the floor (thighs may be slightly elevated above the knees).
  • Feet resting flat on the floor or supported by a stable footrest.

“When you go into a hotel room, case it,” Ravicz advised, to find ways of sitting, typing and talking on the telephone that avoid stress. “Most chairs in hotel rooms are terrible,” she said, but “there are always pillows. … Put a phone book under your feet; put your laptop on a table or desk, not on your lap.”

Tony Biafore, an ergonomics specialist at Ergonetics in Kensington, Md., calls working on a laptop, in particular, an “ergonomic disaster” that forces a trade-off between proper head posture and proper wrist posture.

“The laptop was designed for convenience, not as a main tool” for workers using keyboards, he said. “There is no safe way to work. People are hunched over.”

At least give employees the option of using a portable keyboard and mouse when they work on the road or from home, Biafore recommended. While not perfect, “at least that is a better answer.”

Employees who are traveling should be encouraged to bring along whatever type of equipment they need to work comfortably, Ravicz said. “People have to get over the idea that this is OK, it’s just for a night, it doesn’t matter. Collectively, these things do matter. Our bodies did not evolve to do the kinds of things they’re doing,” she explained.

A lot of it is self-discipline, she added: “You have to become a nag with yourself” about being aware of ergonomic hazards and correcting them.

Ravicz also suggested that home-based workers get together regularly to discuss ergonomic problems and solutions and that HR provide them with up-to-date information about proper use of all devices.

Biafore said he believes a company needs to have a good overall ergonomics program. “If you don’t have one in-house, you won’t have one on the road. It should be an extension of the in-house program,” he said.

Stephenie Overman is a freelance writer based in Reston, Va.

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