There are increased hazards with working from home including less daily movement, working from dining room chairs or living room couches, and isolation. This page is designed to help you prevent long-term ergonomic injuries.
Ergonomics is the science of fitting the job and the work environment to the worker.
One of the results of this new work pattern is an increase in the number of painful conditions involving the back, neck, wrist, and head. The major factor contributing to these injuries is the long period of time a person sits in a chair. Another is the increase in repetitive motions required with the use of keyboards. The arrangement of lighting and Visual Display Terminal (VDT) screens also contributes to the incidence of complaints.
Ergonomics for Telecommuters
Due to COVID-19 and the “Stay Home/Stay Safe" order from the Governor’s office, many faculty, staff, and students are working at home. This Home Office Ergonomics video offers guidance about how to set up a home office work space to reduce or eliminate any stress placed on your body from long stretches of sitting.
Setting Up a Workstation
A computer workstation at home may be a laptop computer sitting on a couch, bed, or kitchen table. As comfortable as some options may seem, using an improper workstation setup for an extended period of time can result in your posture being compromised, potentially increasing the risk of getting an ergonomic-related injury or a musculoskeletal disorder, such as tendonitis or carpal tunnel syndrome. It is important to set up your workstation(s) as well as you can to prevent injury.
Follow the bullets below or refer to the Telecommuter Workstation checklist.
- Use a sturdy chair with arm rests, if possible.
- Consider sitting on a firm cushion, pillow or folded towel to raise your hips; most kitchen tables and desks are too tall and can cause strain in shoulders and neck.
- Place some form of support underneath your feet if they do not reach the ground; use a telephone book, or step stool under feet while seated.
- Ensure you have a 90° bend in both hips and knees. There should be a two to three-finger width between the edge of your seat and the back of your knees.
- Raise your computer monitor using books so the top of the monitor is at or slightly below your eye level while seated.
- Ensure your monitor is approximately one arm's length away from your body.
- Use an external keyboard and mouse positioned at elbow height, if possible. Laptops are not designed for prolonged use or with physical ergonomics in mind.
- Position external keyboard and mouse directly in front of you so you do not need to twist your torso to use them.
- Ensure your shoulders can remain relaxed and your wrists are straight forward while operating the keyboard and mouse.
- Shoulders should be set up so both elbows are bent at a 90° angle and forearms rest gently on the table (not elevated).
Frequent Breaks and Exercise
Frequent Breaks Matter!
Break up the workday with stretching, walking, and a variety of postures. It is recommended that you take a 15-minute alternate task break every hour.If you have other duties that take you away from your computer terminal, divide them up throughout the day to prevent yourself from sitting for long stretches of work at the computer terminal. If you have no alternative duties, take at least 10 minutes every hour to stand up and stretch - movement is good for the body!
ExercisePractice some form of exercise to offset the sedentary work-at-home lifestyle. A little exercise done regularly is better than a lot of exercise done infrequently. Schedule in 20 minutes per day, or 1 hour 3 times per week, of exercise. This can have a dramatic effect on your health and ultimately, on your work performance.
Try this gentle 7-minute chair yoga practice from the Mayo Clinic on a break. Perhaps you will notice how simply breathing and twisting gently can help to release tension in your body and mind.
LET’S MOVE UVM offers free online fitness classes from UVM Campus Recreation. Participation not only gets you moving, it also helps you strengthen your body to avoid injury.
Workstation evaluations can help ensure that your workstation is set up to provide enough flexibility to ensure optimum comfort and mobility. Three variables are considered when evaluating a workstation setup. They include the following:
- Chair height,
- Work surface height, and
- Length of required reach.
Each of these should be adjusted to accommodate variations in employee size and strength.
Paperwork should be organized in such a way that reaching for it is kept to a minimum. It is also recommended that you take a 10-15 minute break every 2 hours to help relieve eyestrain and fatigue associated with visual display terminal use. Vary you work routine; this can minimize the potential for injury or strain.
Why is sitting bad for you?
Sitting for long periods of time has two important effects on the human body: an increase of muscular tension and a constriction of the spine. Both contribute to pain in the back and neck. Watch the How To Fix Forward Head Posture video in the Quick Links. You might also be interested in this Gokhale method video that provides tips on how to align your head over your spine and use a small pillow to gently lengthen the your neck upwards while sitting.
Muscles can be involved in two types of activity: dynamic effort and static effort. Dynamic effort is characterized by movement; the muscle fibers are contracted and relaxed rhythmically. Static effort occurs when a muscle is contracted and held in the contracted position for some time. Bloodflow is restricted in a contracted muscle.
Dynamic effort, such as walking, is easy to sustain for long periods of time because fresh, oxygenated blood flows in a muscle every time it releases. Static effort, however, results in a continual deficit of blood supply to the contracted muscle, so a statically held muscle cannot rid itself of metabolic waste products. It is these waste products which produce the feelings of pain, tenderness and fatigue. Most jobs have a combination of dynamic and static effort tasks. Even individual tasks can have elements of both; for example, typing on a keyboard involves the fingers dynamically and the arms and shoulders statically. It is the statically held muscles that eventually become painful and sore.
A second factor contributing to occupational back pain concerns the orthopaedic aspects of the sitting posture. The human spine has a set of natural curves that become distorted when sitting. The lower back, or lumbar region, which normally curves forward, becomes bowed out. The backward tilting pelvis puts pressure on the intervertebral disks and nerves. The disks are fluid-filled sacs which act as cushions between the vertebrae. If the disks degenerate, then the resulting pressure on the spinal bones and nerves can cause pain.
How is back pain treated?
The Mayo Clinic has a slide show with 15 minutes of Back Exercises to help lengthen and strengthen your spine. Often this can relieve back pain. Always check with your doctor before beginning any exercise program.
As the causes of back pain are many, there are many approaches to treatment. Medical doctors are often consulted, as well as orthopaedic specialists. If surgery is not warranted, they will often recommend a regime of rest, painkillers, and physical therapy. Physical Therapists are often included to oversee the physical exercises. Many people prefer the services offered by chiropractors for their back pain. For some, this treatment offers immediate relief and has the added benefit of being drug-free. Acupuncture has relieved some people, as well as massage therapy. There is no final consensus as to the best treatment for back pain. Different individuals will find help in a number of different treatments. Nevertheless, most people experience the largest amount of pain relief through a regular exercise plan of walking or swimming. There are many who find a cessation of symptoms through this action alone.
Repetitive Motion Injuries
Many repetitive motion injuries, such as tendonitis or carpal tunnel syndrome in the wrists, are the result of performing repetitive tasks for long periods of time on a daily basis.
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS) is associated with many jobs that involve repetitious motion of the wrist. The use of computer keyboards is a potential cause of CTS for many workers. CTS is a painful condition of the wrist and forearm that results from a repetitive hand motion. Its cause can be traced to a U-shaped cluster of bones at the base of the palm that forms the base and sides of the carpal tunnel.
A tough ligament forms the roof of the carpal tunnel. Running through the tunnel are the flexor tendons and the median nerve, which operate the thumb and the first three fingers. CTS occurs when overwork, such as prolonged gripping, repetitive flexing of the fingers, or constant vibration causes the flexor tendons to become inflamed, putting pressure on the median nerve. There are other, non-occupational, causes of pressure on the nerve which can result in CTS, such as the normal aging process, fluid retention (particularly during pregnancy), or a previous bone dislocation or fracture. Irritation resulting from these non-occupational factors can aggravate occupational CTS.
One reason that CTS is often unrecognized as work-related is that the early symptoms usually occur at night. These early signs can be pain, tingling, or numbness in the hand or forearm. As the condition becomes more advanced, there can be a loss of sensation in the hand or stiffness in the hand and fingers, with a gradual loss of grip strength and control of the thumb and first three fingers. Left untreated, CTS can cause permanent nerve damage, with a deterioration of the large muscle of the thumb. Because of the variety of symptoms, CTS can be misdiagnosed, particularly as arthritis. There are several tests used by physicians to diagnose CTS.
How is CTS treated?
In its early stages, CTS can be treated conservatively without surgery. Relief in mild cases can be provided with stretching exercises. Simply stopping work every hour to gently rotate the wrists and arms to increase circulation and relieve muscle tension can reduce the stress on the carpal tunnel. Further steps include the wearing of a wrist splint at night and, if possible, on the job. Icing the wrist can sometimes reduce the symptoms. Anti-inflammatory drugs such as Motrin and Advil can be used to reduce tendon inflammation; cortisone shots can also be administered.
In cases where symptoms are so advanced that they do not respond to any of the above treatments, carpal tunnel release surgery may be the only recourse. This surgery divides the transverse ligament to open up the carpal tunnel. Although initially successful, surgery may not be the cure. Continued pain, tenderness, and a perceptibly decreased grip are not unusual. Scarring of the divided ligament may put pressure on the nerve again, causing a recurrence of symptoms.
Can CTS be prevented?
Obviously, the real key to eliminating CTS is prevention. Workers should make a conscious effort to use proper posturing and grips. The posture of the wrist should be in line with the hand to prevent pinching of the carpal tunnel. Avoid using bent (flexed), extended, or twisted wrist positions for long periods of time. Workers using keyboards on a continual basis should change the angle of their chair to properly align the wrists. If the job consists of varied work, switch tasks often. If constant repetition is required, rest the hands periodically.
Early detection of CTS is particularly important since it can be more easily treated in its mild stages. Don't allow the pain to reach intolerable levels before seeking treatment. On-the-job pain that lasts more than an hour should be interpreted as a danger sign. Symptoms that occur at night should also be considered a warning. Always report such pain to a supervisor.
Human eyes were made for most efficient seeing at a distance. But, as you know, Visual Display Terminals (VDT) demand use of your eyes at a close range, usually intensely, over long periods of time. This alone can strain your eyes and may cause vision problems to develop or aggravate existing vision conditions. Effects on the eye vary depending on the individual and the workstation. Some of the factors influencing this are:
Eye Fatigue: Viewing VDTs at a close range for long periods can be very tiring, and over a long period of time may cause temporary deterioration of vision. VDT operators should take periodic breaks in open areas away from their machines, in addition to alternating an hour or two of screen work with an hour of another kind of work that would allow viewing from a greater distance and more body movement. Two hours is the maximum time that should be spent doing continuous screen work. Review the information about Digital Eye Strain from the American Optometric Association.
Glare: Eyestrain can be caused by improper positioning of the terminal in relation to surrounding office lighting, windows, shiny surfaces and background colors. Glare from a VDT screen that reflects surrounding light can be reduced by using non-reflective glass, as well as altering the lighting structures in the vicinity of the screen. Installing blinds or awnings on the nearby windows, relocating the machine for better lighting, or relocating the light fixtures can significantly reduce glare from the glass of the VDT.
If a terminal is positioned against a background that makes it difficult for the eyes to adjust to the images on the screen, such as a white wall or a window, strain can also result. In this case, the pupils are adjusting to the bright background rather than to the darker screen, and the images on the screen become difficult to see. The VDT operators often compensate by bending their heads or turning their bodies to block the light, causing muscle strain as well.
Successful solutions may include:
- Dim the lights in the room where the VDT sits.
- Change the location of the VDT.
- Paint or cover the wall facing the terminal in a color or texture that reflects less light.
- Install a dark screen or partition behind the machine.
But before changes are made in any office area, it is important to discuss the proposals with fellow employees, to take into account their preferences. Darker lighting, walls, and windows may be more depressing and stressful than the original problem.
Eyeglasses and contacts
Particular problems occur with workers who wear glasses or contact lenses. Glasses overcorrect an operator's eyes for the distance for which they are used with a VDT. Most glasses correct the wearer's vision for a reading distance of 10-13 inches, whereas VDT viewing distances tend to be further, usually 16-20 inches. Workers may find it necessary to be fitted with special lenses designed for their normal viewing distance from the screen.
Screen character size and color
The size of the screen and of the characters plays an important part in adding to, or detracting from, the comfort of the operator. A larger screen with a viewing distance of more than two feet, with a character height of at least 3/16 of an inch is optimal.
It is also best to avoid use of terminals where there is a noticeable 'flickering' of the characters on the screen. All VDTs emit light produced by phosphors that fades rapidly and must be constantly replenished. Unless the rate of replenishment is at least 60 times per second, this flickering may be discernible to operators. Such terminals require more concentration and hence, result in more strain.
What can prevent these VDT problems?
Chairs, keyboards, and desks
Chair adjustability is a primary concern. Take time to adjust the chair to your needs. Ensure you can adjust the height of the chair so that both feet can rest on the ground. Get a chair with a backrest and adjustable lumbar support. Backrests that lean back in a rocking motion are a good feature and can give the back muscles a chance to move. Armrests are the operator's preference; the best chairs have armrests that are removable and (yes!) adjustable. If you have the opportunity to shop for a new chair, ask the retailer if they will let you take the chair on trial. The only way to really tell if the chair is right for you is to sit in it through the day.
The keyboard should rest at a height that is comfortable for your arms and shoulders. Put your hands on your keyboard as if you were going to type, and check your position. You do not want any strong bending or flexing at the wrists, nor do you want to have your shoulders scrunched up high. Sometimes, the keyboard can be lowered by installing an adjustable, sliding tray underneath the workstation. Wrist relief can be sought by having something soft to rest your wrists on in front of the keyboard; a small, rolled towel will often work well. Also, make sure your chair is adjusted properly. If the chair must go up so you can reach the keyboard comfortably, then get a foot rest to go under your feet. Lastly, take a close look at your desk, some of the newer models have adjustable heights.
Your computer should not be placed with the monitor too close in front of your face. Placing it at a distance protects your eyes from strain. If you have a mouse, place it where you can manipulate it without strain on your arm or wrist.
Use proper lighting. It can have a significant impact on your visual comfort and efficiency. The lighting for VDT operation should follow these guidelines:
- Be about 20 to 50 foot candles, which is about half the level used in most offices. Lower lighting can be achieved by using fewer bulbs or fluorescent tubes, installing lower intensity tubes, or using dimmer switches.
- Match as closely as possible the brightness of the surroundings with that of the VDT screen for optimum comfort and efficiency. However, the contrast between the characters on the screen and the screen background should be high.
- Minimize reflected glare on VDT screens by keeping them away from windows and other sources of bright light. Use window shades or drapes to block out excessive sunlight. Antiglare screens are also available.
Noise and Hearing Conservation
The noise level in any area should be low enough not to cause interference with communication or distraction from work. Environments in which excessive noise levels are present can result in the aggravation of hearing impairments and hearing loss. Adequate personal protective equipment should be available in all excessively noisy areas. Any areas that expose employees to noise levels of 85 decibels or higher for a constant 8 hour period require annual audiometric testing of the affected employees.
Please refer to UVM's Hearing Conservation website for more information.