OHS Canada Magazine

Ergonomics a vital lifeline in pandemic economy

Offering your employees support in any way you can, might just be what keeps them going at this time.


Achieving ideal posture is critical in a proper workstation setup. (Epiximages/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images)

Ergonomics is about making work as efficient as possible.

Productivity is at its highest when the work environment is optimized for the safety of the people employed in it, something that is hard to keep up with as workplaces adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the economy reopens, many employees may return to the office, while others will stay remote or work in a hybrid model.

Herein lies the risk: those who haven’t been working, or have been only from home, may be deconditioned to the demands of their tasks, or have developed habits that could put their physical and mental health at risk.

Bringing productivity and injury prevention together

Long months of isolation have led to widespread weight gain and muscle loss in the working population. Being thrust back into eight or 10 hours of on-site work every day can put them at risk for injury.

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Lower-risk occupations are, in some cases, at an even higher risk because people aren’t used to watching for hazards in those environments. 

Employers can turn this problem into an advantage by facilitating reconditioning as part of the return-to-work process. Seeing this as part of necessary training and paying workers to participate may save money in the short and long run. Injury claims will be reduced; productivity will go up.

Realistically, we might not see this practised. But, is it sustainable or even cost effective over the long run as a primary prevention method? 

It’s a stressful time to be managing a team, which is why we need to look for quick wins wherever possible.

Workstation setup, job rotation, and education in areas to improve posture, reduce physical demands, and manage manual handling processes are a few ways employers can work with ergonomists to support their team.

At the same time, conducting an ergonomic assessment is also a time to examine job processes and task design. In fact, this is often where the solutions lie.

Ergonomists bring productivity and injury prevention together by ensuring the human body can flourish while still performing the work.

What we need to remember at this point is that, if work or the workstation has been modified due to COVID-19, these processes and the equipment used will need to be assessed again to ensure they are not introducing new risks.

An ergonomist can help with identifying where the new risk lies and developing effective solutions. The first step in this process is
updating or conducting a job demands analysis (JDA). 

JDAs offer an important lifeline to employers whose focus is on modifying existing processes due to the pandemic, while also supporting safe reintegration back into the workforce for people who’ve been absent from work due to illness or injury.

Yet, when we conduct JDAs, looking at the physical and cognitive demands on the individual worker are just a couple of factors. This is a crucial opportunity to examine the job process and work environment as a whole. 

Using ergonomics to improve workflow

With an ergonomics program in place, workers who develop discomfort know that early reporting leads to addressing the root cause of the issue, decreasing chances of serious injury and keeping work processes smooth. 

While stretching and taking postural breaks are a couple of ways to reduce short-term discomfort, they won’t decrease injury risk. 

It can be difficult for individual workers’ concerns to catch management’s attention in large organizations. What will catch their attention is increased production numbers and reduced costs, particularly when they enhance safety at the same time.

A subsequent step is to standardize these new processes across the company. Our approach to ergonomics always includes encouraging our clients to share solutions with their other sites. 

When an ergonomics case study or pilot project has been completed at one location, it’s extremely cost effective to implement them at sister sites; the work has already been done and may just need some tweaking to fit the new locations’ needs.

Sharing information brings productivity gains and health-care savings to other areas, while also standardizing work processes and equipment across the organization. 

One site’s ergonomics initiative can offer proactive solutions to others. Leveraging all the ergonomic resources available is fundamental to reopening the economy and helping management keep their staff employed.

Being proactive about ergonomics shows workers you care about them and their well-being.

A great example of this is providing guidance and education on safe workstation setup for home offices for remote staff. This can be crucial for keeping your team safe and morale high. 

More and more people — especially office workers — are quitting their jobs or plan on leaving due to the increased stress related to working remotely. Changes in the environment, poor workstation setup, feeling disconnected from the team, or struggling with technology has an impact, both physically and mentally.

By working with ergonomists, employers can understand the essential human factors principles used to support decision making — for example, providing the minimum equipment an employee doing “office work” needs to successfully work from home.

Even if resources are scarce, offering your employees support in any way you can, might just be what keeps them going at this time.

Of all the costs businesses are going to incur as the economy reopens and the pandemic enters a new chapter, being proactive with ergonomics will protect people, improve productivity, and keep injury claims at a minimum.

Annie Barwell is a senior ergonomist at EWI Works in Calgary, Linda Miller is CEO of EWI Works in Edmonton, and Andrew Seal is director of communications, also at EWI Works.

This commentary was published in the September/October 2021 issue of OHS Canada.


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