Sandia LabNews

Ergonomics is the backbone of employee health

Making home offices ergonomically safe and healthy for the growing remote and hybrid workforce

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THE RIGHT FIT — Subcontract manager Carolyn David scheduled a visit with the ergonomics team to properly fit her workspace at home. “The difference is huge. It all equates to good form and that impacts my health, longevity and productivity,” she said. (Photo by Craig Fritz)

The COVID-19 pandemic created an employee health nightmare: In the blink of an eye, thousands of Sandians had to pack up their ergonomically designed, on-site spaces and set up makeshift offices at home. Sandia ergonomics engineer and engineering program lead Lance Perry had just been hired when he was called upon to do the unthinkable task of making thousands of home offices safe for work.

Even with 40 years of experience behind him, it was a daunting task.

“People were working in apartments, garages, and sometimes closets to preserve line-of-sight security,” he said. “The entire family was home, not just one adult. Kitchen tables were consumed. It was chaotic. We tried our best to get some semblance of logical accommodations, but more importantly, help people to understand that they weren’t alone, and that it would get better.”

On the job site, ergonomics engineers can create ideal conditions. They can install the right type of desk, chair or desktop equipment and come to your office to assess your setup and make personalized recommendations. When the world went virtual, all of that changed.

From their own homes, Lance and the ergonomics team created training videos and presentations to address how to best make the transition to a home office. They developed a library of seven videos that had not existed before. One of the fundamentals was optimum seating posture. Then, through a combination of reviewing photos and talking over the phone, the team could provide Labs’ staff with a variety of suggestions.

There were limits, however. New desks weren’t an option, but eventually, staff were able have their office chairs delivered to their homes, leading to a dramatic improvement.

“The chair is 75% of the problem or solution, so if you get the right chair under everybody, you’ll be a long way there. The other 25% is more behavioral than anything. That was our approach to get some control on total chaos,” Lance said. “We didn’t have a built-in mechanism to deliver it to everyone … but we’re there now.”

By mid-2021, office setups had stabilized, and Lance and the ergonomics team realized the 80/20 scenario, whereby 80% of the workforce didn’t need as much support, and the remaining 20% was manageable.

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IDEAL SETUP — Subcontract manager Carolyn David worked closely with the ergonomics team to ensure that the positioning of her keyboard, mouse, wrist pads, desk and monitor are ergonomically correct. (Photo by Craig Fritz)

Within three years, they had impressively performed over 6,000 personalized evaluations.

Today, with over 4,000 members of the workforce in a telecommuting or remote agreement, Lance and the ergonomics team are still working to ensure that every space is designed to be ergonomic, whether at home, a touchdown space or an on-site office.

“Right now, we have reservable touchdown spaces, and we have made them fundamentally ergonomically correct for a typical person. We’re still working on houses; not every house is the way we want it, but our philosophy is the same: It doesn’t matter if you’re working at home or Starbucks or the office or conference room. Can we get you in properly fitted, correct support angles? If we can achieve that, we can’t do anything more as ergonomists.”

Lance emphasizes that members of the workforce need to be in the right angulation with the right support. Optimizing the correct angles reduces the biostatic pressures, and relieves all the joints in a body, reducing the risk of musculoskeletal disorders.

“An injury will not allow you to do well at anything. The reality is that it’s a performance science and affects people mentally, physically and physiologically. We try to prevent fatigue and injuries, errors, omissions, cognitive issues, because those can be as costly as anything,” Lance said. “At the end of the day, the success of every company is dependent on the success of the individual; if you help people with what they do, it helps the bottom line.”

Tips for working from home

According to Sandia ergonomics engineer and engineering program lead Lance Perry, here are five things to consider when working at your house.

Work at a designated computer station. Couches, beanbags and upside-down paint buckets will not offer the same support as an ergonomically designed desk and chair.

Avoid working solely on a laptop. Lance said this is the most egregious mistake anyone can make. The laptop is designed for short periods of time, such as on a construction site or taking notes in a classroom. It was never designed to be a permanent, eight-hour-day platform. The hinge causes the monitor and keyboard to be adjacent to each other, which puts strain on the neck. “When you work all day with your neck bent over, you become a prime suspect for musculoskeletal disorders,” Lance said.

Avoid sitting for long stints. Humans developed to accommodate physical activity, and everyone needs to get up and move around regularly.

Use the right chair. The chair is the single device at your desk that you interface with the most. Hands do not interface with the keyboard as much as your body interfaces with a chair.

Maintain a neutral posture. This principle was originally derived from NASA research, and the benefits of a neutral posture are increased comfort and reduced chance of injury.