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The Question is: What do ergonomics mean and how does this relate to working from home instead of the tried and tested office setup and environment?

For us to answer this question, we first need to understand what ergonomics is and what role it plays in the workplace environment. Ergonomics simply means the relationship between Man and Machine or Worker and Workspace. Ergonomics in the bigger picture is a lot more apparent and has a bigger impact in those working environments where vigorous work or manual labour is required, however that does not mean that it is totally excluded from a normal office environment and where computer or paperwork is performed. For example, if an employee is working with power tools such as a grinder or power drill, they will have to use an appropriate size and weight power tool that will perform the task at hand and without strain or immediate harm to the body i.e. Awkward postures, confined space, work station limitations to name a few. When we consider desk work and sitting behind a computer for 8 or sometimes 12 hours a day, this might not seem as strenuous as working on a construction site or in a factory for example, however it does in fact still have its own inherent risks and long- term musco- skeletal impact. Picture for a moment your own, current work arrangement and think about how often do you get up and walk around, move your arms and legs or do you have to look down to your screen and perform awkward movements to retrieve papers and documents? Ergonomics in the workplace environment in recent years have become much more of a “must- have” than a “nice-to-have” and should be adopted wherever possible to maximize employee wellness and reduce injuries.

The year 2020 has seen a lot of changes in what we knew and accepted as our norm for workplaces and office environments with one of the biggest changes probably being the concept of Working from Home. For some, this was a change that was readily accepted, and they welcomed the idea of not having to sit in traffic or dress up for work, simply walking to your desk or the kitchen counter and start up. However, for others this was not the case and they had to improvise and force certain spaces and setups to accommodate their needs, where it was not always practical left alone ergonomically suited. For example, some made use of their bedroom dressers as a table and the bed as their chair where others I spoke with were confined to their motor vehicles due to space limitations in their homes. This brings about the challenge of maintaining a work and personal life balance and having a definite split between the office and the living room or even the bedroom. In return, two major hazards that are still on the rise today started to take over, namely Stress and Fatigue.

Stress can be due to many reasons and not only due to the pandemic and work pressure, however one very apparent reason is that of not being able to “switch off” or close off the day and leave work to get home to family and friends. Fatigue also kicks in when we cannot maintain a work and personal life balance and the pressure keeps mounting to the point that you easily see yourself still working at 22:00 at night. The next day it is up again and the whole routine starts all over. Now I know that ergonomics will not solve this problem and this conundrum will be one we will face for a while to come; however, it certainly will help prevent injury and discomfort and promote quality of life outside of work commitments.

This brings me then to the question at hand, Ergonomics and Working from Home. I am not going to delve into the legal considerations and who is responsible for Ergonomics in your home since this is and will stay a grey area between regulation and reasonably practicable for the foreseeable future. However, one thing that we can say is that from an employer perspective we can help our employees in raising awareness and providing training in terms of ergonomics and the regulations, whereas from an employee perspective we can still comply to the Occupational Health and Safety Act in terms of Section 14 by taking care and looking after our own health and safety. The problem with our new norm and the current Working from Home situation is that these potentially poor workplace setups, awkward postures, and habits we adopt will have the tendency to overflow and creep into our office environments once we return to what we once knew and an office building. If we consider the nature of these ergonomic hazards and situations, we are forced with adopting now we must keep in mind that the injuries and problems we might face will not be an immediate and sudden injury, but a more long- term impact on postures, muscles and overall wellness, which is why identifying such ergonomic hazards and problems quickly and working around them can go a long way in preventing these long- term impacts.

Closing Remarks

Finally, now that we have an idea of what ergonomics means, what considerations and hazards to look out for in assessing our current workplaces and home offices we will be able to better answer the question we started with. Working from home can be challenging for a lot of different reasons and some not even related to work or physical workplace setup, however a focus on and changing our approach to this new normal can surely go a long way in adapting a bit easier and maintaining the ergonomically suited station you would have had back at the office. Ergonomically suited workplaces and more relatable home offices is mainly focused on adapting the workplace to fit the worker and changing the current situation to suit the employee rather than the employee having to fit the workplace. In saying this, I know that for a lot of us it still seems difficult and extremely unlikely to suddenly revamp or change our homes to be more ergonomically safe and conducive to work in, however all is not lost seeing that there are still some considerations and solutions we can implement based on those we find to be the most applicable and practicable. Here are some I have personally experienced and implemented but are not limited to:

  • Try using spaces and areas in your home that are not easily disrupted but also not totally isolated where you feel as if you are in solitary confinement such as a spare bedroom or closed veranda/ stoep
  • Commit to doing deskercise. While you are sitting and typing away, move your legs, pump up those calve muscles to ensure good circulation and flow of blood to the brain and throughout the body.
  • Whether you are sitting at the kitchen counter or a garden table, try keeping your elbows in line or above the desk, supported by the chair’s armrest and an upright, back- straight posture.
  • Take regular breaks for a mere 5 or 10 minutes to just walk around, stretch and do anything other than work. The key is not to have your body in the same posture as it was when you were working. Sorry Guys, no being a couch- potato and/ or playing Playstation for you while taking a break.
  • If possible, vary between sitting and standing positions whilst typing and performing your daily work. For example, for every hour sitting down try standing up 30 minutes while continuing to work.
  • Align your laptop and/ or second screen and monitor to reduce glare and beware of eye strain from working too close or too far from the screen. The general rule of thumb will be to keep at 80cm away from the screen.
  • We are humans, humans are social beings. Reach out to friends and colleagues just to check in and find out how they are doing. This will never substitute the 5-minute morning coffee at the office, but it will help keep the team dynamic alive.

For more on this topic or to enquire about Health and Safety training interventions by passionate individuals with years of industry- focused experience in their respective fields, contact Viann Eben Nel on viann.nel@inlexso.co.za or visit us at www.inlexso.co.za