It’s no secret that technology has had a positive impact on our ability to work. Computers have allowed us to be more productive and accomplish complex tasks from almost anywhere on the planet. However, the benefits of technology come with a cost. Now more than ever, employees are anchored to their desks and are forced to live sedentary lifestyles for a large portion of their day. Some estimate that within the next five years, 90% of the workforce will need basic computer literacy to perform their roles. This means a lot of time spent seated, looking at a screen.
With this seismic shift in the daily routine of most employees, workplace ergonomics has become an vital topic for a large percentage of the workforce. However, the law surrounding responsibility for these types of injuries is often unclear.
The Drawbacks of a Desk Job
One of the largest issues with deskbound work is simply the act of sitting in a chair for too long. The human body is not meant to sit in chairs, especially for extended periods of time. Your muscles stiffen, metabolism plummets, and circulation slows. It also has a profound effect on your posture. Not only can it strain or cause soreness in your head, neck, spine and shoulders, but poor lower body positioning can impact your feet and legs as well. Coupled with typing or using a mouse, your fingers and wrists can suffer injuries like tendonitis or carpal tunnel.
Another negative facing many employees is eye strain. We currently live in the age of screens. Between our cellphones, tv, and computers, the average person spends almost 11 hours a day looking at screens. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that our eyes get fatigued. Also known as Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS) or Digital Eye Strain, it estimated that as high as up to 90% of computer users suffer symptoms.
Is Your Employer Obligated to Create an Ergonomically Friendly Workspace?
The answer is a little complex. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) does not have a specific regulation or requirement for employers to provide ergonomic equipment to their employees. However, under the General Duty Clause, an employer is required to “furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.” Depending on your definition of “serious physical harm,” one could infer that an ergonomic set up is not in fact required by law.
Yet, from a retroactive standpoint, employers do have a responsibility to cover most ergonomic related injuries through workers’ compensation benefits. All states are required to have some form of workers’ compensation laws. And according to OSHA, 1/3rd of every dollar spent on workers’ compensation stems from improper ergonomic protection, and injuries like carpal tunnel or eye strain are on the list of covered injuries. So, many workers are covered, but only after they exhibit signs of an injury.
Therefore, the current system is caught between two minds. Employers are not explicitly liable by law for prevention but can be for the consequences. The issue with this system, however, is that the employee must prove that the injury occurred under the scope of employment to receive benefits. This may sound straightforward, but often times it isn’t. For common repetitive motion injuries or even eye strain, it may be challenging to prove that your employment was the sole or proximate cause of your injury. Without enlisting the assistance of an injury attorney, you may have trouble holding your employer accountable if they deny responsibility or your claim is rejected.
Due to the convoluted nature of the law, the best practice to staying injury free from your desk job is taking matters into your own hands and building good habits.
In addition to standing up and stretching regularly over the course of the day, the US Department of Labor offers some suggestions on proper posture and body positioning:
When you are concentrated on your work, it is easy to forget about your posture. Set quick reminders throughout the day to check your positioning. You may wish to implement a change to your work station, such as trying a standing desk, although be warned that standing all day can have negative impacts as well. Moving around during the day is the best step you can take for your overall health. You may also wish to invest time into stretching or exercises that specifically target problematic areas.
For Eye strain
Whenever you are looking at a screen, it is important to follow the 20-20-20 rule: every 20 minutes of screen time, take a 20-second break and focus your eyes on something at least 20 feet away. The location of the screen is also key to protecting your eyes. The screen should be at least 15 to 20 degrees below eye level and 20 to 28 inches from your eyes. Also ensure that you have proper lighting, including minimizing glare, so that your eyes are not forced to work overtime in everyday situations.
Since ergonomics impact your health and well-being, invest some time and effort into tailoring a comfortable workspace for yourself and your body will thank you!