Shared from the 2/15/2021 Financial Review eEdition

Guarding against remote worker injury


Thanks to the impact of COVID-19, now looks to be a good time to talk about risk when working from home – and it appears that corporate Australia agrees.

High numbers of staff reporting new pain is a red flag for potential Workcover claims and, perhaps unsurprisingly, claims data recently shared by Comcare relating to work from home during March-June 2020 show the beginnings of a rising trend. Many in the health industry are expecting a further increase in the next 12 months as the novelty of remote working wears off.

In the UK, the Institute for Employment Studies commissioned a home worker wellbeing study at the start of COVID-19. Preliminary results, released two weeks into Britain’s first lockdown, revealed that more than half of respondents reported new aches and pains, especially in the neck, shoulders and back. This ongoing study showed that even after some people had adapted to working from home, approximately one in three were still reporting a rise in musculoskeletal issues.

The need for risk assessments for the home working environment has been one of the key messages from such studies; there was a significant reduction in symptoms for the people who had a risk assessment, compared with those who had not.

“Poorly designed workspaces can generate back pain and stress injuries,” note academics Carol Kulik and Ruchi Sinha in a recent article for The Conversation. “In the long run, sedentary behaviour is associated with a range of physical health problems, including higher cancer risks.”

With working from home no longer the novelty it once was, attention is now turning to the longer-term health and safety implications of this new model. Prior to the pandemic, musculoskeletal disorders were already the most common work-related injuries in Australia.

Employers maintain a legal duty of care for the health and safety of workers, including when they work from home. Safe Work Australia offers a series of recommendations for employers to ensure employee work stations are set up safely, including by giving guidance on what is a safe home-office environment; requiring workers to familiarise themselves and comply with good ergonomic practices; providing a health and safety checklist for employees; considering workstation assessment where practicable; and engaging in ongoing discussions regarding workstation set-up.

Checklists are a start, but Ergoworks Physiotherapy & Consulting director Marnie Douglas says they are time consuming to manage, and arguably don’t do enough to satisfy an employer’s duty of care under Workplace Health and Safety laws.

“Employers need to identify risks that arise from working remotely, and then put in place controls that are reasonably practicable for the safety of their workforce.’’

When Australia went into lockdown in March last year, “the phones were ringing off the hook’’, Douglas says. “We talk to many top 100 ASX-listed companies, and they’re trying to figure out how to manage the risk of the hybrid model in a costeffective way. Unfortunately, humans just can’t do all the assessments face to face. You’re talking about thousands of people.”

Douglas has seen renewed interest from clients in Ergoworks’ cloud-based risk assessment and e-learning platform ErgoAssess, which the company launched in 2008. The award-winning platform uses responses to develop a risk profile for staff members. Questions cover everything from monitor placement and chair adjustments to home safety issues, such as trip hazards and first-aid kit availability, with employees able to upload photos of their workstations. Based on their responses and risk profile, it automatically sends personalised recommendations to staff to address their risk.

“The power of the program is in the back end, which has 15 different reporting mechanisms,’’ Douglas says. ‘‘This enables companies to report on all kinds of things such as compliance levels, organisational risk levels, and to create targeted interventions. It allows companies to say, ‘We’ve done our due diligence, we’ve given all our employees best-practice information, we’ve created a risk profile, and we’ve put in place a system to demonstrate how we’ve mitigated risk as well’.”

Ultimately, Douglas says tools such as ErgoAssess can help organisations ensure they aren’t forgetting to look after the health of staff, as the home/office hybrid model takes hold.

“There has been a lot of discussion around the mental health of employees during COVID-19. Physical health is also a huge risk for organisations, and often overlooked.”

Douglas explains that pain with remote working is not a new problem and has simply been brought to the main stage by the sheer volume of people now embracing it.

“We actually wrote an article about mobile working almost a year before COVID-19, outlining the risks and some easy solutions that we were providing our clients back then. This experience positioned us well to assist more clients as the wave of COVID-19-related inquiries came through.

“The bottom line is that working from home doesn’t need to be an ergonomic failure. Embracing technology to perform digital risk assessments as part of a solid working-fromhome policy is a smart step towards looking after the most important asset of any business.”

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