Safety Leadership: Don’t let remote work be a pain in your neck
Editor’s Note: Achieving and sustaining an injury-free workplace demands strong leadership. In this monthly column, experts from global consulting firm DEKRA Organizational Safety and Reliability share their point of view on what leaders need to know to guide their organizations to safety excellence.
Reflecting on these past few months of working remotely, I have to admit there have been some positives. I don’t have to wear shoes to work. I can wear shorts. I spend more time with my family and my pets.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, my husband and I traveled with our work and spent very little time working from home. Today, he mostly works from the kitchen counter, and I took over the desk and chair he picked out months ago to use on the rare occasion he could work from home. We both work on laptops. But as days and weeks working this way transitioned to months, our neck pain increased. It forced us to finally make some much-needed adjustments to our workstations to better control the ergonomic hazards associated with traditional office work.
Back and neck pain can readily be related to office and computer use. According to a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, a review of health care expenditures from 1996 to 2016 showed that low back and neck pain had the highest amount of health care spending in 2016 – an estimated $134.5 billion.
One of the leading causes of neck and upper back pain associated with computer use is looking down. This becomes especially apparent when people use a laptop, whether it’s on a person’s lap, a tray table on an airplane or a desktop at home. It’s also common to see people in this forward-bending position when looking down at their phone.
This position goes against the natural design of our bodies. Our cervical spine is designed to support the weight of the head when the natural curve is maintained (i.e., looking forward). That means, when we look down, the extensor muscles at the rear of the neck weaken and the cervical spine curves forward. This forward-flexed position has the effect of shortening connective and muscle tissue over time. Prolonged looking down can even lead to a curvature of the spine that is nonreversible and very painful as the nerves get compressed by the cervical vertebrae.
Who would’ve thought that using a computer or a tablet could lead to such a serious condition? The good news is that this situation can be prevented by raising the height of the monitor and performing some deliberate stretches. Ideally, the monitor should be adjusted so that the top of the screen is aligned with the eyes when looking straight ahead. If two monitors are used, they should be at the same height to minimize head movement. For monitors on a desk, there’s a variety of monitor arm attachments that allow for easy adjustment of the monitor height.
A laptop makes adjustment a challenge. If it’s propped up to raise the screen to the optimal level, it may then be difficult to use the keyboard. For this reason, people who work on a laptop daily should consider using a detachable keyboard and mouse. There are multiple ways to raise a laptop. For short periods of time, the laptop could simply be set up on books or another stable surface. If the laptop is used every day, designated laptop stands provide more stability and ventilation.
Exercises for your chest and upper back
Between our phones, tablets and laptops, it’s no surprise that many of us are flexing our necks too much and, as a result, experiencing discomfort. Fortunately, we can do exercises to relieve discomfort and prevent further deterioration of the spine. Exercises that stretch the chest and strengthen the upper back are most effective. Start with easy shoulder shrugs and backward shoulder rolls to open up the chest. Then, place your fingers on the back of your head as you gaze forward. Press both elbows back, feeling the stretch across your chest.
To strengthen your upper back, scoot to the front edge of your chair with your feet on the floor and your arms hanging down, unsupported. Squeeze your shoulder blades together, holding this position for five seconds before relaxing and repeating for a minute. Repeat these movements several times, as frequently as once every hour. Finally, moving around and alternating between seated and standing work can also help.
My husband and I decided not to wait for the neck and back pain to get worse. Changes we made included raising our laptops, using a portable mouse, switching between our seated and standing workstations, and performing specific exercises.
I’m still enjoying being shoeless, though!
This article represents the views of the authors and should not be construed as a National Safety Council endorsement.
Garnett Payne, Ph.D., is a senior consultant with DEKRA North America (dekra.us/osr) and the subject matter expert for ergonomics. Building on technical knowledge, she helps guide teams and leaders to control exposures.
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