By Michelle Despres, PT, CEAS II, REAS, CETS, Vice President of Physical Therapy, One Call
When COVID-19 hit, the silver lining for many of us was the opportunity to work from home. No commute, casual wear, and the simple comforts of being in our own home made the uncertainties of the pandemic a little bit easier to handle.
As time went on, and employees proved they could be just as, or even more, productive at home, employers embraced the change. This ultimately led to a historic shift – the creation of the largest, potentially permanent remote workforce ever to be seen.
Now that many of us have been settled in at home for nearly a year, the shiny newness of remote work is starting to wear off and a potentially negative side effect is starting to rear its ugly head.
The truth is that many people still don’t have a proper workstation set up at home. Whether it be space issues, the expense of buying home office equipment, or the sheer inability to see the need, there’s a significant group of remote employees who have developed bad habits. These habits – such as daily slouching over a laptop from a couch, working from a barstool at your kitchen counter while your legs dangle, or constantly forcing your wrists into a flexed, palm down position while typing at your dining room table – are causing a growing group of employees to become at-risk for developing on-the-job injuries, and ultimately, workers’ compensation claims.
Proof in the Data
Injuries that occur in a remote workforce tend to be cumulative trauma disorders – over time they continue to get worse until they cause pain that can no longer be ignored. They start as overworked, weak, tight muscles. This creates friction, pressure and tension that leads to decreased circulation and swelling. Eventually, all of this trauma culminates with the formation of scar tissue. Prolonged sitting and poor posture contribute to an increase in low back issues as well as neck and shoulder problems.
To demonstrate how the creation of a COVID-19-induced remote workforce has led to these types of injuries, we compared Q4 claims from 2019 vs. 2020. When looking at the total number of claims year-over-year during those quarters, the data is compelling. It shows an increase in the percentage of total claims received for injuries you would expect to see in a remote workforce:
- Wrist or Forearm Sprain / Strain / Contusion – 10.3% increase1
- Pain in Hand / Finger – 13.2% increase2
- Cervical Radiculopathy – 16.2% increase3
- Carpal Tunnel Syndrome – 17.9% increase4
- Low Back Pain – 24.6% increase5
While we can’t say for certain that all of these injuries were incurred by remote workers, the increase in these types of claims from Q4 2019 (pre-COVID-19) to Q4 2020 (shift to remote work) certainly begs the question.
This is Likely Just the Beginning
As time goes on, my prediction is that we’ll continue to see an increase in these types of claims. This is due to their cumulative nature – the more time that goes by without addressing the problem, the worse the injury, and pain, becomes.
But that’s only half the story. The other half of the story deals with human nature. For most employees who have been sent home to work, it has been a welcome change. Gone are the days of sitting in traffic to spend the day in the office, and there’s not a whole lot of desire to go back. For that reason, employees may be hesitant to report any injury suffered while working from home in fear they’ll be sent back to a physical office to work. This means there are probably a lot more injuries out there that simply haven’t been reported yet.
Change is Easy
While the situation is real, there are easy, cost-effective solutions employers can take on behalf of their employees to prevent many of these problems from occurring.
It begins with proper ergonomics to promote proper posture. If you’re looking to make an investment in ergonomics equipment to mitigate some of these issues, start with a good chair. For around $200-$300, there are many chairs on the market that feature all of the necessary adjustments to properly support the body. From a five-point-base and an adjustable seat pan to a supportive backrest and removable armrests, don’t underestimate the benefits of a quality ergonomics office chair for an employee’s posture and overall health.
But for many employees, you don’t even need to start there. Slight adjustments in one’s posture can instantly reduce an employee’s at-risk-of-injury status. This can be accomplished with a 20-30-minute virtual assessment of the employee’s workstation by an ergonomics professional. From there, simple measures, such as using reams of paper to raise your monitor or placing a box under your feet so they don’t dangle, can be taken to prevent injuries.
Risk of Remaining Status Quo
The hardest part is getting started, but you will be happy you did. Data from the National Council on Compensation Insurance and OSHA paints a clear picture of the average cost of these types of injuries if they turn into workers’ compensation claims (medical + indemnity):
- Occupational disease/cumulative injury: $35,7796
- Carpal tunnel – $30,5107 – $64,9538
- Sprain/strain – $31,8519
What’s worse is that often times, people who have carpal tunnel surgery, for example, don’t end up getting better. The root cause of the problem was something entirely different, and therefore, not addressed with surgery.10 This could have possibly been avoided if an ergonomics consultation had been performed.
The cost of a comprehensive preventative ergonomics program is less than the cost of a single injury. The total estimated cost of a comprehensive preventative ergonomics program, including technology driven self-assessments, professional ergonomist intervention, and equipment procurement for a company with 1,000 employees, is approximately $39,000.11 In comparison, the average cost of a carpal tunnel claim is $30,510 – $64,953, as noted above.
In addition, there are other “costs” associated with cumulative trauma disorders aside from the claim itself that can be substantial, including reduced productivity, loss of work hours, or replacing an employee who can’t work.
There are many benefits to remote work – both for the employee and the employer. That said, out of sight, out of mind, is not the approach to take when it comes to the health and wellbeing of this newly created workforce. Remember to be proactive – preventative measures taken now will quite literally pay off for you and your employees in the long run.
About Michelle Despres
Michelle is a leader within the world of physical therapy discussing everything from virtual physical therapy to physical therapy as an opioid alternative. She encourages injured workers to be independent and take an active role in their recovery with the help of innovations in physical therapy. Michelle mentors clinicians to improve delivery of treatments and services and return-to-work results.
About One Call
As the nation’s leader in specialty network management services for the workers’ compensation industry, we place injured workers at the heart of everything we do. We utilize creative and innovative solutions to timely and efficiently connect injured workers with quality provider networks across a multitude of health care services. Our foundation is built on an unwavering commitment to deliver exceptional service and unparalleled clinical expertise to drive outcomes. For more information and the latest news, visit us at onecallcm.com or on LinkedIn (One Call).
One Call is a WorkCompWire ad partner.
This is not a paid placement.
1One Call national data. Reflects injured worker claims, comparing Q4 2019 to Q4 2020 trends.
2One Call national data. Reflects injured worker claims, comparing Q4 2019 to Q4 2020 trends.
3One Call national data. Reflects injured worker claims, comparing Q4 2019 to Q4 2020 trends.
4One Call national data. Reflects injured worker claims, comparing Q4 2019 to Q4 2020 trends.
5One Call national data. Reflects injured worker claims, comparing Q4 2019 to Q4 2020 trends.
6National Council on Compensation Insurance (2020). Average total incurred costs per claim by part of body, nature of injury, and cause of injury, 2017-2018 [2nd report, WCSP Data]. Injury Facts. https://injuryfacts.nsc.org/work/costs/workers-compensation-costs/
7National Council on Compensation Insurance (2020). Average total incurred costs per claim by part of body, nature of injury, and cause of injury, 2017-2018 [2nd report, WCSP Data]. Injury Facts. https://injuryfacts.nsc.org/work/costs/workers-compensation-costs/
8Occupational Safety and Health Administration. (2021). Estimated Costs of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses and Estimated Impact on a Company’s Profitability Worksheet. United States Department of Labor. https://www.osha.gov/safetypays/estimator
9National Council on Compensation Insurance (2020). Average total incurred costs per claim by part of body, nature of injury, and cause of injury, 2017-2018 [2nd report, WCSP Data]. Injury Facts. https://injuryfacts.nsc.org/work/costs/workers-compensation-costs/
10Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care. (2017, November 16). Carpal tunnel syndrome: When is surgery considered or needed? Informed Health. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279597/
11One Call data. Cost estimate based on 2020 preventative ergonomics pilot program encompassing 300 One Call employees, findings scaled to estimate a 1,000-employee program.