The ongoing pandemic has put the spotlight on many unexplored vulnerabilities of businesses, particularly, maintaining operations while keeping workers safe. One of the solutions to this dilemma has been the recent surge in work-from-home arrangements. Remotely managing a workforce can be a daunting task, especially when it comes to areas of limited oversight, such as the environmental, health, and safety (EH&S) concerns of employees. Identifying these risk factors and acting accordingly not only shields employers from incurring liabilities but strengthens the manager-employee relationship, even at a distance. To assist in this process, this article will take a closer look at the top 3 EH&S hazards prevalent in remote working situations.
1. Physical Ergonomics
Before the work-from-home setup became mainstream, businesses put a premium on constructing office setups that were as ergonomic as possible. This priority serves the purposes of attracting potential employees, boosting worker productivity and efficiency, and reducing rates of days away from work (DAFW). According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 30% of all DAFW cases in the U.S private sector could be attributed to musculoskeletal disorders (MSD), which can be caused by overexertion, repetitive motion, and awkward posture.
Studies have shown that improving office ergonomics leads to healthier employees and increased job satisfaction. By implementing engineering and administrative measures that eliminate risk factors associated with the awkward posture that comes with non-ergonomic office furniture, worker efficiency and productivity can be increased. Unfortunately for remote workers, using non-standard office furniture increases the probability of multiple MSDs (such as carpal tunnel syndrome, neck strain, and back pain), all of which hamper job performance.
A 2020 World Economic Forum survey of from-home workers reported that 46% had difficulty getting work done due to inappropriate work setups and equipment. To address this, organizations have begun to create guidelines for remote workers to self-check whether their setups are ergonomic or not. Some companies have gone as far as giving work-from-home employees up to $1000 to purchase ergonomic work furniture, citing the need for employees to feel comfortable and maintain productivity while working at home.
2. Mental Health
Besides physical well-being, employers should also keep their remote employees’ mental health in mind. Even before the introduction of pandemic-induced anxiety, depression and other mental health issues have been a growing problem and work-related stress is a prominent contributor. The CDC reports that around 200 million workdays are lost due to depression, costing companies anywhere from $17 to $40 billion a year. While work-life balance may be better with the emergence of work-from-home setups, remote workers face increased tendencies towards loneliness and isolation. A study by the American Psychiatric Association revealed that nearly two-thirds of US-based remote workers have felt isolated or lonely while working from home at least once, with 17% saying they have these feelings all the time. On a more positive note, the same survey conveyed that 54% of employees felt that their employer showed great concern for their mental health. As a recent example of this, the professional networking company, LinkedIn, gave its 15,900 full-time employees a paid week off to unplug and recharge. Apart from granting time off, other goodwill gestures, such as creating time for employees to converse about their wellbeing, are critical to fostering a supportive and safe environment.
3. Working Environment
Lastly, the environment of work-from-home employees should not be overlooked. Even with an entirely remote workforce, employers are still responsible for providing a safe and healthful work environment. As such, it is important to be cognizant of the common hazards that remote workers can encounter. Without supervision from managers or co-workers, at-home employees are susceptible to certain health and safety challenges. For instance, unlike in the office, where electrical equipment is standardized, home electrical sockets are more prone to overloading when extension cords and higher output devices occupy them. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) reported that more than 32,000 home fires involving faulty electrical distribution and lighting equipment occurred annually from 2015-2019. With the increase in at-home work and the correlating rise in the prolonged use of electrical cords and outlets for multiple devices, this figure is expected to grow significantly.
In addition to fire hazards, remote workers are also exposed to slip, trip, and fall hazards. Trailing electrical cords and more devices grouped around an informal work setup are tripping hazards waiting to happen. Though the freedom from the confines of a cubicle or office is part of the appeal of remote positions, at-home workers should still strive to have a safe and orderly office setup. Employers can act on this by providing safety information and conducting safety training to modify work habits and improve the at-home work environment.
In the last decades, companies have poured efforts into establishing work environments that are as safe and conducive to work as possible. However, the drastic shift from in-office to remote and hybrid work setups poses new challenges to employee comfort and overall safety. These issues, if not addressed, have the potential to affect employees, productivity, and the company’s reputation. The EH&S leader role must adapt to include the health and safety implications of remote work. Proactive measures for EH&S leaders to counter the common hazards of at-home work include educating employees on the best practices for creating a safe work environment, building open lines of communication between managers/supervisors and employees, and establishing a good baseline for workplace setups and employee wellbeing.
The SafetyStratus Research Advisory Group (RAG) brings together thought leaders from the global environmental, health, and safety community to promote best practices and provide key insights in the profession and the industries they serve. The Research Advisory Group also advocates, where practical, the intersection of and advances with the use of technology, such as the SafetyStratus enterprise EHS software platform. Group membership consists of representatives from across varied disciplines and market sectors as well as select members of the SafetyStratus team.
The primary objectives of the SafetyStratus RAG partnership are to:
- Build a strategic partnership between EHS practitioners and the SafetyStratus team.
- Provide engaging and practical content to the global EHS community.
- Provide discipline and market feedback specific to SafetyStratus products and services.
While the objectives of the RAG are varied, the primary public-facing outcome will be available through engaging and practical content found on the SafetyStratus resource pages. Various articles, papers, and other valuable resources will be produced and shared as part of an ongoing effort to cultivate a robust community. Ultimately, the SafetyStratus RAG will expand to have a broader reach and provide opportunities for more inclusion by all interested EHS professionals in a collaborative community environment.
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