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How to Help Workers Remain Safe and Productive Working From Home

Remote worker in office working from home

Recently, there has been an influx of people working from home. In many cases, a sudden transition to working at home was required, and providing remote worker training ahead of time was not a viable option. It would be an understatement to point out that there are a lot of things to consider before working remotely—with health and safety as priority one. Whether the transition to working from home was always a part of the plan or it’s a new adjustment, here are some tips to ensure that everyone continues to be a valuable member of the team.

Designate a workspace

The truth is, a lot of jobs—in one way or another—allow for people to work remotely from anywhere they can connect to the Internet. But sitting on the couch for a day’s work is less comfortable than you’d think. It’s important to have a designated workspace with proper ergonomic design if working from home is going to be a regular thing (even if it’s just for a day here and there).  

Having a designated workspace at home helps create a work mindset to increase productivity. An office is a physical representation of where work starts and stops, and setting up a home office or workspace can recreate that setting. It’s ideal to reduce distractions by establishing the home office in a separate room to literally close the door on anything that would prevent staying focused on work. But even without an office with a door, setting the boundary lines between work and home space can help maintain concentration when it’s time to work.  When someone is working from home, their loved ones can misinterpret whether they’re wearing their work hat or their home hat. Having a separate workspace can keep the work-home lines from being blurred.

A functional desk needs to have enough room to house a computer as well as sufficient working space. Remember ergonomics—sitting on the couch might seem like a comfy option at first, but it can create an awkward position in the body, putting stress on the spine and hips, and could lead to a musculoskeletal disorder. If a laptop is the primary computer, an external keyboard is essential. This will allow a better ergonomic position of the wrists and hands, and allow more distance from the screen. A chair should be set up in front of the desk to position the body with arms and legs parallel to the floor line and feet flat. The top of the monitor should be at eye level. If an office chair isn’t an option at home, a cushion can be placed on the seat of a kitchen or dining chair to increase height. A cushion can also be used for lumbar support. Stretch breaks are a vital part of the basic home ergonomic set up—a break for stretching should be scheduled at least every two hours.

Temperature and lighting impact fatigue and body temperature can have a major effect on productivity. Ensuring it’s not too hot or too cold will allow the body enough energy to get through a workday effectively. Optimal room temperature (25°C/77°F) is the best for staying on task even though a slightly lower temperature of 72°F is commonly known as standard. Proper lighting that doesn’t cause headaches or strain is required for optimal working conditions. Natural light improves mood, focus and sleep. If a home working space does not provide natural light, ensure that there is enough light to see in order to avoid eye strain. Keep in mind that staring at a computer screen for a long time can strain eyes, regardless of lighting. Following the 20-20-20 rule (for every twenty minutes spent focused on the screen, look at something twenty feet away for twenty seconds) can prevent eye strain.

Home safety awareness

Statistically, workplaces are far safer than working from home due to regulations, the hierarchy of controls and the many functions and efforts of dedicated safety professionals. Most companies haven’t specifically trained workers on the numerous hazards present in their homes so when people transition they have in essence shifted from a safer place to a riskier one.

The work they do from home will likely be on a computer and not operating dangerous equipment but there are still plenty of hazards lurking—from tripping hazards and stairs to stacks of work toppling an overloaded bookshelf. And since there won’t be a safety professional or ergonomist doing regular walkthroughs of the home, you’ll need to convey the basics of identifying risks and offering solutions for eliminating or managing them.

And if parents are working from home with children it could be a challenge maintaining their normal levels of supervision to keep kids safe when they get focused on their work. They will need to strategize how to ensure proper supervision and make sure that all of those child protection best practices have actually been done such as locking up chemicals, using baby gates at stairs, ensuring window blind cords don’t allow any strangulation possibilities, and having a fire escape plan. Making sure the home is safe will add a level of redundancy in case work distracts from supervision, even momentarily.

Establish working hours and break times

A work schedule should be set with times that are typically productive work hours. If there are children at home, ideally it’s best to work during the hours when child care is available. If this is not possible, plan around the times when children won’t require as much attention, like during nap time or while they’re busy doing an activity. The standard 9–5 may no longer be ideal, or even possible, and an earlier start or later finish to the working day may need to be implemented.

It’s important to set a schedule for all of the breaks required throughout the workday, otherwise, they may be neglected. These breaks should include ergonomic stretch breaks, 20-20-20 eye strain breaks, lunch breaks, coffee breaks and general mental health breaks. Setting a proper schedule with allotted break times can prevent the work-home line from getting blurred.

Working from home needs to be treated the same as working in the office—from getting ready in the morning to physically going to a designated workspace. You wouldn’t get up while working in the office and start doing chores—you need the same mindset for working at home. If necessary, save any chores for your scheduled break time and be strict on keeping your working hours devoted to work.

Recognize and discuss human factors

When home workers are in a rush, tired, stressed or juggling too much at once it will be very natural to slough off proper procedures for a later time. They’ll be tempted to forego setting up their work area properly. They’ll forget to stretch or exercise. They’ll opt to replace that lightbulb later or use a chair instead of finding the stepstool to save time. They might not communicate enough even though they know they should. All of these types of things can lead to unexpected safety incidents or productivity problems when a simple mistake leads to hours of rework. Explain to workers how their state of mind can make something that’s normally not very risky become very risky in the blink of an eye. Incorporate human factors into training and communications like this simple home ergonomics tip sheet, learn more about the importance of human factors and safety 24/7 and ensure supervisors have the knowledge and skills to lead remote teams in a safe, productive and engaging way.

Communicate regularly

Common feedback when people go from working in the office to home is that they feel lonely or out of the loop. Supervisors should schedule weekly check-in meetings to discuss all of the projects in the pipeline and determine if anyone needs help. Video conferencing and regular calls are an important part of that communication. Even reaching out in a fun way to bring a smile is essential to maintaining a healthy working relationship when people are working outside of their regular space. 

It’s worth noting to remember safety regardless of work location. Injuries with long-term effects are a negative outcome of improper planning when it comes to working remotely. Ergonomics, human factors, regular communication, hours worked and breaks are all factors that tie into the planning for remote worker safety so ensure these tips are put to good use at home.

On-demand webinar

Using a Human Factors Framework for Safety and Operational Excellence

It can be hard to see the connection between safety, productivity, human factors and organizational systems. This webinar will demonstrate how a human factors framework can impact all areas of an organization, linking individual worker safety and organizational systems and provide an outline that allows leadership to manage safety-focused change.

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