A new University of Cincinnati College of Medicine study stresses the need for frequent breaks for employees who work at home, in order to stay healthy and minimize injuries.

“The body doesn’t like static postures continually,” says Kermit Davis, PhD, a professor in the UC College of Medicine. “You don’t want to do all sitting or all standing all the time. You want to alter your position and change it up throughout the day.”

Workers across the nation have converted their basements, spare rooms, dining room tables or bedrooms into makeshift offices in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. But few have much guidance when it comes to making these new spaces ergonomically safe, says Davis, who runs both UC’s graduate industrial hygiene and occupational ergonomics programs.

Davis conducted an ergonomic assessment of employees at the University of Cincinnati sending out an email survey to 4,500 faculty and staff after the coronavirus pandemic prompted the university to join many other employers across the nation in sending workers home to continue operations. The survey had 843 people complete it. As part of the study, 41 employees sent Davis photos of workers at home workstations for ergonomic review. This subset showed some trends and offered a glimpse into what many who work from home are encountering.

The survey’s findings were recently published in the scholarly journal Ergonomics in Design.

Davis says the ergonomic evaluations of the home workstations identified many issues that could be adversely affecting the workers. Many chairs were the wrong height with about 41% too low and 2% too high. Fifty-three percent of workers had armrests on their chairs, but 32% did not use them and for 18% of workers the armrests were improperly adjusted, the study found.

Davis says not using the armrests causes contact stress on forearms when rested on the hard front edge of work surfaces and strain across the upper back as the arms need support. Also, support of the back of the chair was not used by 69% and often without any lumbar support for 73% of survey participants. That meant many individuals did not have proper support of their lower back, maintaining the lumbar curvature.

The position of a computer monitor was often too low or off to the side. Three quarters of monitors were laptops, which were too low relative to the workers’ eye height, the study found. 

External monitors were also routinely set up too low in 52% of participants or too high in 4%. Another common issue with the monitors was the lack of the primary screens centered in front of the workers occurring in 31% of workers and resulting in twisting of the neck and/or back to view the monitor, according to the study.

Davis says not everyone can spend hundreds of dollars on a new chair or other equipment when working from home. He says there are some easy fixes that will go a long way in improving the ergonomic well-being of office workers, including the use of pillows to elevate a seat height, wrapping armrests to raise them, and raising a computer monitor.

Other co-authors in this study include Susan E. Kotowski, PhD, associate professor in the UC College of Allied Health Sciences; Denise Daniel, who is in the first-year master’s degree program of occupational health nursing at the University of Cincinnati College of Nursing; Thomas Gerding, who is pursuing a PhD in environmental and industrial hygiene; and Jennifer Naylor, who is in the master’s degree program of occupational health nursing. Megan Syck is also a co-author and pursuing a Master of Science degree in environmental and industrial hygiene.