For an estimated 44 million telecommuters in the United States, the morning commute is just a matter of slipping into the chair in their home office. However, for those same people, that chair and its accompanying workspace can sometimes be the source of pain and even injury.
The reason? Simply put, a lack of ergonomics.
According to a recent AP article, that lack of ergonomics may be one of the prices of the freedom from the office that telecommuters share. In the corporate office, ergonomics might rank high in importance, but scaled back to the home office where the employee is responsible for the expense and setup of the work environment, the situation becomes quite different.
“It’s actually worse than in an office, because in offices [workers are] aware of the problem. At home, people tend to use whichever furniture is lying around because the companies aren’t paying for the furniture,” Marc Resnick, director of Florida International University’s Human Factors and Ergonomics Laboratory, told the AP.
Kitchen tables become desks, lighting function becomes secondary to its convenience, and chairs, which corporate office may be willing to put out big money for, rarely take as high of a priority for the homeworker who is footing the bill for his or her own office.
Home office furniture designer Jack Kelly confers. In a 2003 interview with The Ergonomics Report, Kelly noted that employees who work from their homes usually want one of two things: inexpensive furniture or something that blends in with their home’s decor.
Additionally, Kelly also notes that available space often works against the telecommuter. “The scale of the furniture is very important. Also, shared spaces are another consideration,” Kelley said, noting that people still have to be able to, and to want to, live in their houses. Ergonomic furniture may not always fit with the homeowner’s style or space.
Still, as the AP article points out, home-based workers are reporting injuries including musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) that can sometimes be traced back to the lack of ergonomics in their workspaces. In late 1999, OSHA attempted to intervene by issuing an advisory letter that stated employers should be responsible for periodic inspections of workers’ in-home offices to ensure ergonomics were up to par. OSHA’s advice, however, didn’t sit well with worker or employer and was subsequently withdrawn.
But even if the employer and the federal government aren’t ready to declare what is healthy and what isn’t for the home office, telecommuters should be. Anyone with a home office can follow some simple advice, like the following from The Ergonomics Report, to help ease the pains of working from home:
Chairs: Rather than bringing any old relic down from the attic, invest in a chair that offers comfort and adjustability, even if it costs a few dollars more.
Desk: A stable desk will provide a better work surface and more of that “office” feeling than a temporary solution like a card table, kitchen table, desk or bar.
Space: Dedicated space allows a worker to concentrate on work. If space allows, set up the office in a separate room or in an environment that can be closed off from the rest of the home.
Light: To work effectively, sufficient light is needed to illuminate the workspace. Also watch out for glare from windows and position the computer monitor accordingly.
Impact: Don’t go overboard in an attempt to limit the impact of having an office inside the house. Tiny workstations and desks might look less conspicuous but still need to provide enough room to comfortably accomplish tasks.
Breaks: Remember to take breaks. Stand up, walk around, clear your head and relax for a few minutes every couple of hours.
For more ergonomics tips for home-based workers, read “Who Takes Care of Ergonomics In the Home Office?” available only in The Ergonomics Report.