Ergonomic Injuries and Working From Home

At a glance:

  • Ergonomics is the science of the suitability of human spaces to their intended purpose. In the workplace this means having a work area designed to optimise function and minimise possible injury risk, both physical and mental
  • Ergonomics in the workplace range from having a good chair and a monitor at the right height, to psychosocial risk factors inherent in the work environment and other environmental factors such as temperature, humidity and the use of space
  • An ergonomic injury is typically caused by small, repeated traumas to muscles, tendons, ligaments, blood vessels or nerves due to the workplace or environment not being suitable for the task at hand
  • The most common reported ergonomic injury is lower back pain, but other injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome, bursitis, tennis elbow, hand-arm vibration syndrome, tendinopathy and trigger finger are also common

What is Ergonomics?

Ergonomics refers to the design or arrangement of places, products or services so they fit with the people they are intended for or those who use them. For many people, the term ergonomics brings to mind products with sculpted grips or specialised seating, but in reality it is a science dedicated to the suitability of human spaces to their intended purpose.

This requires learning about people and their limitations and creating spaces or products that work within those limitations. In a workplace setting this might be ensuring that desks and monitors are at the right height, that seating provides adequate support and that everything needed to do the job is within easy reach so as to limit the amount of twisting or lifting.

It may require changing the height from which objects are lifted to minimise back strain, or the positioning of equipment to minimise clutter and reduce workplace injury. Ergonomics should take into account data from a number of different sources, such as demographics including age, weight, height and the like, the biomechanics of the job, service or product, the physics of the environment and even the social psychology in the workplace.

In the workplace, office ergonomics are intended to help people feel more comfortable at work, both mentally and physically and reduce the risk of injury. According to Safe Work Australia , in the 2012-2013 financial year, the cost of workplace injury to the Australian economy was $61.8 billion, with around 77% of that being footed by the workers themselves.

What is an Ergonomic Injury?

An ergonomic injury is often caused by small, repeated traumas to muscles, tendons, ligaments, blood vessels or nerves due to the workplace or environment not being suitable for the task at hand.  The most common ergonomic injuries are musculoskeletal disorders (MSD). These disorders are sometimes broken into four subcategories; Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI), Repetitive Motion Injury (RMI), Cumulative Trauma Disorder (CTD) and Cumulative Trauma Injury (CTI).These types of injury are typically caused by factors such as:

  • Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) and Repetitive Motion Injury (RMI) - sometimes known as a repetitive stress injury, this type of musculoskeletal disorder is caused by the gradual buildup of damage caused by repetitive motions or activities, often exacerbated by improper technique or conditions. Sitting for long periods or having improper posture can also cause repetitive strain. Examples of RSI include carpal tunnel syndrome, bursitis and tennis elbow, (lateral epicondylalgia).
  • Cumulative Trauma Disorder (CTD) and Cumulative Trauma Injury (CTI) - CTDs/CTIs are caused by repeated “microtraumas” caused by repetitive motion or action. The repetition means that these traumas don’t have time to heal so the damage accumulates over time until it becomes problematic. Hand-arm Vibration Syndrome and Reynaud’s Syndrome are two examples of CTD caused by prolonged use of vibrating tools such as jackhammers or hammer drills. The vibration damages the blood vessels, nerves, bones, muscles and connective tissue in the hand, over time leading to pain, numbness, loss of dexterity and Vibration White Finger (VWF), a condition in which affected fingers appear white and bloodless.

Injuries that fall under the banner of ergonomic injury include but are by no means limited to:

  • Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
  • Bursitis
  • Tendinopathy
  • Tennis or Golfer’s Elbow (Lateral or Medial Epicondylalgia) 
  • Nerve irritation or entrapment
  • Knee Pain (Office Knee)
  • Muscle Strains
  • Trigger Finger/Mouse Hand
  • Back Pain 
  • Neck Pain

Lower back pain accounts for the vast majority of reported ergonomic injuries worldwide.Although physical injury is what is typically associated with ergonomic injury, disease and mental health also fall into the purview of ergonomics to some degree, as a work space not designed to cater to the work being done or the comfort of the people doing the work can affect both their mental and physical health.Levels of lighting, humidity, temperature, ventilation, and available space can all contribute to ergonomic injuries.

Ergonomics and Working From Home

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, more people than ever before are working from home, and consequently the number of ergonomic injuries in the home are expected to rise. One of the major contributing factors to this rise is that with few exceptions, most people’s homes do not have proper ergonomic office spaces, so people are making do with what they have. In many cases, that may not be enough.

Having a good comfortable chair, without arms, that offers good back support is only part of avoiding ergonomic injuries while working from home. Having a desk at the right height, monitors that are at the correct eye level, good lighting and everything needed for the job easily accessible without having to bend or twist awkwardly are also vital.  A simple, but appropriate desk setup should see your feet flat on the floor, your elbows at waist height, hands level with the keyboard, and eyes looking slightly up towards the computer screen.  Whilst laptops are certainly convenient, they don’t allow this ideal setup, and force you to look constantly downwards, increasing your risk of neck pain and injury.

Across Australia there are new guidelines in place for business with staff working from home. Even if you are self-employed and work from home, many of these guidelines may be able to help you.  

As a general rule of thumb, under these new guidelines, employers should take all reasonable steps possible to ensure that an employee has a home workstation that meets occupational health and safety requirements. This may require an assessment.A home workstation should be ergonomic and should feature all the necessary equipment, but that’s not the whole story. Employers, and the self employed, should also be aware of the potential psychosocial ramifications of working from home, such as isolation from workmates and family, changed workloads, a perceived lack of support and fatigue.

Minimising psychological risks is just as important as minimising physical risks when it comes to workplace ergonomics, as a poor psychological state can make a person more prone to injury, and a poor physical state can conversely negatively affect mental health. 

With distance learning also a concern, both for young children and university aged students, having an ergonomic learning space is also of utmost importance.

How do I Avoid Ergonomic Injury?

Avoiding ergonomic injury ultimately comes down to ensuring that your workspace and/or tools are set up in a way to minimise risk. How this is achieved may differ from job to job and person to person as everyone has different capabilities and physical limitations.

Some steps you can take to avoid injury include:

  • Take Breaks - sitting for long periods is bad for your health. People who remain stationary for long periods of the day have a higher risk of obesity, developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease and depression. Sitting for long periods may also lead to or exacerbate existing musculoskeletal problems.  Set an alarm on your phone to ensure you are moving every hour.
  • Stretch - while you’re taking a break, take some time to stretch or get some light exercise. This may help loosen up any stress that has accumulated and lowers your injury risk.
  • Pace Yourself - without the inherent structure that comes with going to a workplace, many people who work from home have difficulty in finding a routine so they can properly pace themselves. This may lead to overwork, burnout, fatigue and stress, all of which may increase your risk of injury. 

How are Ergonomic Injuries Treated?

Severe workplace injuries may require surgery or specialist treatment, but given that the most common reported ergonomic injury is lower back pain, the first line of treatment is typically physiotherapy.

Physiotherapists are experts in the mechanics of the human body and motion, and utilise a number of non-medicinal techniques to treat musculoskeletal issues. Depending on the injury, a physiotherapist may use strengthening exercises to build the muscle around an affected joint, massage or other manual therapy techniques to loosen muscle knots (myofascial trigger points), mobilise or manipulate the joints or use specialised equipment or therapy such as TENS (transcutaneous electronic nerve stimulation) machines, hydrotherapy or dry needling.

If your workplace is giving you pain in the back or neck, or if you have issues with muscles or joints that seem to flare up when performing repetitive workplace tasks, it might be time to schedule an appointment to see a physiotherapist .

The fastest and easiest way to book healthcare appointments online is through MyHealth1st.  

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