Lockdown has increased the number of employees working from home while depriving facilities managers of the normal means to conduct home workspace risk assessments. Simon Wicks – deputy editor of Facilitate’s sister publication The Planner – considers what issues still need to be addressed.
Chances are that you’re familiar with the process of risk assessment when setting up a desk and display screen equipment for employees in the workplace – it is, after all, a duty imposed by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).
However, the same duty applies to staff working from home, unless only “temporarily”. The Covid-19 pandemic, which has splintered single workplaces into a separate one for every employee, presents two clear conundrums here.
First, can working from home be considered ‘temporary’ during lockdown? Second, if this situation cannot be considered temporary, how do you conduct a home workplace risk assessment when social distancing is in place?
To answer the first query, it’s probably a wise move to err on the side of caution. Even though the UK government is now encouraging people to return to workplaces where it is safe and practicable to do so, homeworking is likely to remain with us for some time and may become permanent for a good number of employees.
To answer the second question there is help at hand. “Predominantly, we're doing one-on-one consultations, but we’re also doing a lot of group training,” Brooke Fenn, an ergonomist with workplace ergonomics consultancy Humanscale Consulting, tells me via – what else? – a video link.
“We have webinars where we talk about ergonomics principles and show different tips and tricks that you can apply at home. A lot of people are opting for group training because there are so many people that need help and it’s the quickest way to get the training to everyone.” (The company also offers onlineergonomics self-assessments for employees.
According to the HSE, some 6.9 million working days are lost each year in Great Britain to work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WRMSDs). This amounts to around 29 per cent of all sick days.
Of course, the prevalence is in physical occupations and the stats show that between 2016/17 and 2018/19, self-reported WRSMDs reached 2,340 per 100,000 workers in skilled trades, but were a much lower 980 in ‘professional’ occupations. Keyboard work or repetitive action was implicated in 230 cases per 100,000 workers and awkward/tiring positions in 370.
The figures may not seem high compared with manual trades, but with so many employees left to create their own workstations, the risk has undoubtedly gone up considerably.
“Depending on how long this goes on for, we may start to see more discomfort in people,” says Brooke, circumspectly. “It starts off feeling like a little bit of pain and then over time things like repetitive strain injuries can occur. What we ultimately want to try and avoid is putting our body into awkward postures and positions that could lead to discomfort and potential injury.”
Like most people, I don’t have health-and-safety-approved office equipment at home. Indeed, for the five weeks or so of homeworking before speaking to Brooke, my makeshift home office in the spare bedroom has consisted of a small Victorian Davenport writing desk, a hastily purchased chair from a secondhand office furniture supplier around the corner, and a laptop.
I have a bulging disc in my lower back and this arrangement has been giving me some lumbar stiffness, not least because I no longer have access to the standing desk I use at work. I’ve been getting by with breaks and some post-work stretching.
I suspect the desk and the laptop are preventing me from adopting a properly comfortable working position. But Brooke, who has already seen photos of my set-up, starts with the chair.
The overall aim, she says, should be to achieve a ‘neutral’ posture “where you're sitting with your feet flat on the ground and your thighs parallel to the floor, so your hips and your knees should be about the same height”. This, Brooke explains, will make sure that my pelvis and spine are “more aligned” when sitting for long periods. Any kind of twisting or contortion is out – my days of sitting at an angle to the desk, one leg crossed over the other, may be over.
Unsurprisingly, a good chair is integral to achieving neutrality. It should be adjustable in four ways, Brooke informs me: seat height, the capacity of the seat to slide forward and back, armrest height, tension on the backrest. Moreover, the chair should also provide some kind of lumbar support, so you can arch your back naturally while seated (between the back and the seatback where needed).
As it turns out, my cheapo secondhand chair does all of this bar the lumbar support, though Brooke assures me that a homemade lumbar roll can do the trick.
To kick off, we set the seat height to get my feet flat on the floor and my thighs perpendicular to hips. Brooke then asks me to reach down and insert my fingers between the back of my knee and the edge of the seat. There should be enough space here to slot in three fingers, she says.
Any more or less and I’ll need to make an adjustment. But it’s spot on. Then she instructs me to lean back. My seat is stiff (aha!). Loosen it, she tells me. I wasn’t aware I could, but I locate a dial beneath my seat, turn it and – what do you know? – the stiffness eases and I can lean back comfortably without pressure.
“It’s actually healthier for our spine for us to sit back,” my online expert stresses. “Enough so that it feels that it can support you, but not so much that you're feeling like you're falling backwards.”
An old-fashioned idea about the importance of maintaining a straight-backed posture, inherited from parents and grandparents, is the most common trap that Brooke finds her consultees falling into. The second most common error is to lean forward, hunched over a keyboard to type. It turns out we should be lounging somewhat. Hurrah!
A third common mistake is to have our hands too high when we type. With my set-up, I am definitely guilty of this. “This is a very frustrating thing in the area of ergonomics,” Brooke confesses, “because most work surfaces are much too high for us.
“It tends to make our shoulders come up and our wrists bend backwards, and it really puts a lot of strain on our upper body and our lower body because we also have to lean forward.”
This is a particular problem for me because my desk is designed for writing and thus high, and I use a laptop. If I put the laptop on my actual lap then I breach another rule: keep the screen high - the top line of text should be at eye level This, too, ensures that a neutral, stress-free posture is maintained.
What’s more, the screen should be at an arm’s length distance. Laptops are a poor substitute for desktop machines and definitely not good for working for any length of time, Brooke insists.
This is where I have to do some thinking and improvisation. As it happens, my laptop is a Microsoft Surface Pro, which means the screen and keyboard can be separated. This allows me to mount the screen in a suitable position on the desk and, in theory, put the keyboard on a ‘lap desk’ (a board or tray of some kind) in my lap. A keyboard, Brooke explains, should be roughly at elbow height so that our shoulders are relaxed when typing. Armrest and/or palm support should ensure that wrists aren’t bent when typing. They should be flat.
There’s bad news for me, however: the keyboard does not work when separated from the screen. Good news: other manufacturers make a Bluetooth version that will do the job I need. I order one sharpish and dig out a purpose-made lap desk for mobile devices (an unused Christmas gift for my other half).
The Bluetooth keyboard was my second home office investment, my first having been a small desk lamp to improve the light around my desk area. Though I’m right next to a window, it faces north so dull days really are quite dull. Being side on, however, is a good thing. Brooke tells me that natural light is essential and coming from the side reduces glare on the screen.
I’m still standing
That would seem to be everything sorted. But I had one more question for Brooke. How long should I stay seated for at any time? According to Brooke, we should all be standing for a portion of every hour of work – or, at the very least getting out of our seats and moving around.
“The research says that for a period of 30 minutes of work, we should be sitting in a neutral supportive posture for 20 minutes,” she tells me. “We should be standing for eight minutes and then moving and gently stretching for two minutes. We're looking at a full hour of work, I usually recommend that people sit for about 45 minutes and then take a 15-minute standing break and then alternate between the two.”
It goes without saying that the same rules apply for hand and eye position when standing as sitting. If you don’t have a standing desk, Brooke suggests workarounds such as an ironing board for the keyboard and perhaps a shelf for the screen. In my case, I’m lucky that the window beside me is a bay window with a deep sill at about the right height for my keyboard. With a bit of adaptation, I can make this work as a standing workspace.
Brooke is also an advocate of ‘micro-breaks’ to combat stiffness and fatigue by loosening up the body. A micro-break is anything less than 60 seconds, she explains and should be taken two or three times an hour. “It’s important that we stand up and we move around a little bit,” she says, as a way of preventing the kinds of musculoskeletal issues that can accumulate through staying in a “static posture” repeatedly.
So where does this all leave me? Two weeks on from my consultation, my workspace configuration has changed significantly. My Bluetooth keyboard has arrived, so I’ve been able to detach and prop my screen on books at the recommended height and distance. The ‘lap desk’ is in employment and I’m trying to sit in the correct ‘neutral’ posture as much as I can while taking micro-breaks and standing to work periodically.
Has it helped? Well, after two or three days of using the principles advocated by Brooke as I understand them, my lower back stiffness has gone. I’m experiencing some mild discomfort between my shoulder blades, however, which is down to not having my keyboard set-up quite right. My wrists have not been straight as recommended and my palms not properly supported. I’m experimenting with homemade fixes and, with Brooke’s advice and Humanscale’s tip sheet to draw on, I’m confident I can get this right, too.
Brooke stresses that, while they can go a long way to relieving musculoskeletal problems associated with poor working postures, home fixes are not necessarily a sufficient long-term substitute for the kind of ergonomically informed equipment we find in company workplaces.
“A lot of the things that we're discussing and recommending for the short term wouldn't necessarily replace the long-term solution,” she emphasises. “So [a regular chair with some adaptations] doesn't replace having a good ergonomic task chair, or having the ability to adjust and control our hands and eyes. There are absolutely legit ways that we can accomplish this, but it's not something that we want to think of as a long-term solution.”
Simon’s set-up before the consultation:
• Victorian Davenport writing desk
• Office chair (£40, secondhand)
• Laptop on desk with keyboard attached
• Bay window to right
• Stiff lower back at the end of each day
Simon’s set-up after the consultation:
• Victorian Davenport writing desk
• Some settings changed on office chair
• Bluetooth keyboard (£39.85) resting on a ‘lapdesk’ (free)
• Screen detached and raised to eyeline on a pile of books
• Small desk lamp (£8.99)
• Bluetooth mouse on order (£10.99) - though may not be necessary
• Bay windowsill converted to standing workspace
• Total cost of home office conversion: £99.83
Top tips for home office set-ups
Humanscale Consulting’s Work From Home Laptop Setup Guide offers the following tips:
• Task chair – adjust seat height, depth and recline tension, armrest height and lumbar support to achieve the neutral position. If you don’t have a proper ergonomic chair, try resting feet on books to achieve the right seat height, using cushions to get the right seat depth, and a towel as a lumbar roll.
• Keyboard and monitor – if using a laptop, employ a separate keyboard to achieve the correct monitor and keyboard position (monitor at arm’s length and eye height, keyboard at elbow height and close to the body). Flatten the keyboard to maintain straight wrists and rest palms on a support.
• Standing – stand for approximately 15 minutes an hour.
• Phone – avoid holding the phone to your ear, use headphones or speakerphone.
• Illumination – ensure that you have adequate lighting for documents; position the light opposite your writing hand to minimise shadows.
• Recovery – every 20 minutes, look 20 feet away for 20 seconds. Incorporate frequent postural changes throughout your day.