The coronavirus has enforced many companies to adopt remote working arrangements. With so many employees leaving the workplace, you’d expect measurable improvements in terms of worker safety. After all, the home is hardly a dangerous environment, and most jobs that are compatible with remote work don’t involve operating machinery or carrying heavy loads.
Yet months into the pandemic, statistics indicate otherwise. The rise of the work-from-home employee has actually coincided with an uptick in reported stress and muscular discomfort. 89% of employers said that their workers experienced the same or greater physical strain. 95% felt that such musculoskeletal problems would continue or worsen.
On both sides of the equation, people are navigating uncharted waters when it comes to remote work. Employees need to know what to do if something happens. Is it time to call their personal injury lawyer or file for worker’s compensation? And employers naturally want to look into issues of liability as well as ways to prevent such incidents from affecting productivity and morale.
The typical office worker doesn’t engage in activities that risk a severe injury. Their daily tasks normally consist of a lot of sitting down, staring at a screen, tapping at a keyboard, and making gestures with a mouse or touchpad.
However, the repetitive nature of such motions incurs another sort of injury risk, called repetitive strain injury (RSI). We often associate this with carpal tunnel syndrome, the most common sort of RSI. But this is just one kind of RSI, falling into the Type 1 category, which covers specific conditions.
RSI can also have non-specific symptoms, which makes diagnosis difficult. These include swelling, tingling, cramping, numbness or loss of sensation, and shifting or sporadic aches and pains. Such injuries fall into the Type 2 category of RSI.
Increased risk factors at home
The link of repeated movements performed over an extended period to eventual injury is easy to understand. What may be counter-intuitive is why Covid-19 and working from home would make things worse. After all, most homes surely offer greater comfort than the traditional office.
The problem stems from two factors. The first is a general loss of conditioning. Modern workers, even those whose jobs tie them to a desk, are physically engaged. You might not exert yourself like an athlete or a construction worker, but reporting to the office each day invariably raises your activity level compared to staying at home.
Discarding that office routine cuts down on the typical office worker’s already light level of activity. For confirmation, you need only check the average step count on your phone or fitness tracker when working from home. This drop in activity causes a loss of conditioning, which increases the risk of injury.
The second risk factor is related to design. Homes are comfortable, but they’re mostly designed to be lived in. Few of us have houses that were specifically designed to accommodate office needs. That includes ergonomic furniture, adequate ambient lighting, and calibrated, eye-level monitors.
These things are usually covered by employers, so we take them for granted. Take them out of the environment, and you’re likely to be working more hours in sub-optimal positions from your couch, easy chair, floor, or bed.
Turning to prevention
There’s some good news for any employee who’s already experiencing RSI: it can be covered by workers’ compensation. But that itself can be a complicated matter.
Leaving aside variations in worker’s compensation laws from state to state, you have to report any work-related injury as soon as possible. And proper documentation is essential to a successful claim.
But working from home makes that more challenging. How are you going to prove that an injury occurred specifically as a result of tasks you were performing for your employer’s benefit? The fact that RSIs develop over time and can have sporadic, non-specific symptoms also adds to the difficulty.
That isn’t to say that an RSI-related claim will be denied. It’s in an employer’s best interest to protect workers and show humanity, especially during this time of crisis. But for both remote workers and their employers, the focus must be on prevention.
The pandemic is an ideal time for people to focus on their health. Remote workers will find that maintaining a high level of physical activity keeps their bodies in better condition with various movements.
Employers should do their part to encourage such efforts and raise awareness of the issue. And as it’s been months since the outbreak of Covid-19, they should be better prepared to provide workers with ergonomic equipment and review possible risks with home-based setups.
Both sides must make an effort. That way, physical pain, productivity loss, and long-term costs of RSI due to remote work can be avoided.