28 ISE Magazine | www.iise.org/ISEmagazine
Following ergonomic
best practices amid
Keeping workers safe in offices,
plants and at home requires
careful analysis
By Timothy (Tim) Pottorff
“We want to always consider
the design of workstations
and tools; we want to keep
people safe; we want a good
facility layout; and we want
to be cognizant of the hu man
interaction between people,
materials and equipment.”
March 2021 | ISE Magazine 29
“When we start making changes within a pro-
cess with the laudable goal of protecting people
from potential exposures to COVID-19, we must
not forget the capacity of the human body and the
physical demands of the job.”
30 ISE Magazine | www.iise.org/ISEmagazine
Following ergonomic best practices amid COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has turned the world up-
side down more so than since World War II and the
flu pandemic of 1918. The advantage we had in 2020
was a combination of greater scientific knowledge
and ability, combined with modern communications
that allowed millions of people around the world to
transition from working in offices to working at home. How-
ever, millions more people, particularly those in food process-
ing and manufacturing, did not have the option of working
at home during lockdowns that lasted for months and affected
nearly every person in the world in one way or another.
Here we will focus on both the work-at-home employee and
those who remained in manufacturing and processing opera-
tions, as well as provide guidance on the issues that have arisen
and best practices for mitigating ergonomics risks while follow-
ing COVID-19 best practices.
From an injury perspective, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statis-
tics reported for 2019 that more than half of the occupational
illnesses and injuries requiring days away from work related to
a potential ergonomics issue: strains, sprains, soreness and pain.
In my prior professional experiences, we found that about 40%
of both lost-time claims and severity (cost of claims) were due
to ergonomics-related causes.
From a regulatory perspective, the U.S. Occupational Safety
and Health Administration (OSHA) and occupational health
and safety executives in most countries around the world have
general duty” clauses that require companies maintain work-
places free of recognized hazards. These workplaces include
not only traditional ofces, manufacturing and processing op-
erations, but also the work-at-home environment. European
Union countries, as well as Mexico, also require companies
to conduct assessments of all work processes, tasks and work-
stations for ergonomics risks. This also includes home office
Within the U.S., California has a requirement within its
Injury & Illness Prevention Program Standard (IIPP) that re-
quires attention be paid to employee complaints of discomfort.
It also has the 1994 Cal/OSHA Ergonomics Standard for Gen-
eral Industry, along with the occupationally specic 2018 Cal/
OSHA Hotel Housekeeper Musculoskeletal Injury Prevention
Program (MIPP) Standard. The state of Maine requires em-
ployees receive computer workstation ergonomics training, and
New Hampshire requires companies to “evaluate all incidences
of ergonomically related injuries.
Working from home creates problems
For employees told to work at home, “for the next few weeks
during the early stages of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic,
many companies did little more than send their team members
home with a laptop computer and normal productivity expec-
tations. A Sept. 4, 2020, article in The New York Times reported
on a survey from the American Chiropractic Association that
92% of respondents to an April 2020 survey said that patients
were reporting more pain in their neck, back or other issues (see
accompanying article on Page 32).
An unscientific social poll I conducted resulted in about
46% of respondents saying they had ergonomics issues work-
ing from home. Respondents to a survey of the Northeastern
Illinois Chapter of the American Society of Safety Professionals
showed that 50% of those responding themselves (or a family
member) had ergonomics problems from working at home. A
teammate reported that one of his clients surveyed all of their
work-at-home employees and 47% reported they had pain or
discomfort of some level, which validates the earlier unscien-
tific numbers.
For employees working at home, the key is posture and
support. A traditional kitchen chair is not going to suffice. A
neighbor of ours is an engineer with a large international com-
pany. He experienced deep vein thrombosis that required life-
saving surgery after he had been working his usual extended
hours on a kitchen chair. Thus, an adjustable chair with padded
seat, backrest and armrests is critical.
I do not recommend the “two-hour” chairs sold at many
big-box stores but do recommend that people choose a brand-
name refurbished chair at a significant discount from the retail
price. The other thing is chair “fit.” One size does not fit all. I
have worked with clients ranging in size from 4 feet, 10 inches
tall to 6 feet, 8 inches.
The other working-at-home aspect is relatively easy to ad-
dress. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,
well before COVID-19 induced work-at-home orders, did not
recommend that laptop computers be used as a primary com-
puting device. Rather, the CDC has for years recommended
that laptop computers be coupled with a docking station and
peripheral accessories such as monitor, keyboard and mouse.
Conference offers more
on safety standards
Author Timothy Pottorff will provide a presentation at the virtual
Applied Ergonomics Conference 2021, March 22-25. He will
be speaking on the Musculoskeletal Injury Prevention Program
standard in “Hospitality: The Industry Ergonomics and Safety Left
Behind.” To learn more or register for the conference, visit iise.
org/AEC. You can read his article on the topic from the March
2020 issue of ISE at link.iise.org/isemarch2020_pottorff.
March 2021 | ISE Magazine 31
People who wear eyeglasses with progressive lenses will need
to keep their monitors lower; people without such lenses will
want to raise their monitors so the top of the screen is about
eye level (as recommended for monitors in “regular” offices).
While laptop monitors have grown and can often be used
as primary monitor screens, there is no substitute for having
a separate keyboard and mouse. These can be purchased from
many outlets; however, I recommend a midrange option for
the keyboard. People who do not frequently use a 10-key
pad can benefit from the smaller size of a compact keyboard,
which helps reduce reaches to the mouse pointing device.
Adapting needs to employees’ specs
In industrial settings, we want to always consider the design of
workstations and tools; we want to keep people safe; we want
a good facility layout; and we want to be cognizant of the hu-
man interaction between people, materials and equipment.
With COVID-19, many companies installed various plexiglass
guards and barriers to limit the movement of droplets between
people unable to work more than 6 feet apart. The key to good
ergonomics design, however, is to avoid the conundrum of
solving one problem yet simultaneously creating another. Bar-
riers and guards improperly designed and/or installed will in-
crease the risk for future work-related soft tissue injuries and
Two key anthropometric considerations in the science of er-
gonomics are the hand reach distance from the center of the
body (not the belly) and the height of the point of operation
of the hands, i.e., “where” the hands are when they are per-
forming “work.” Some areas where process engineers and de-
signers frequently fail is when they design for themselves or an
average”-sized person. The goal of applying anthropometric
data in process design is to accommodate as many people as
My late professor at Kansas State University, Stephan Konz,
would show diagrams of people of various shapes and sizes
during his ergonomics lectures that I remember to this day.
We want to design forward reaches for the smallest people and
work heights for the tallest people.
Unfortunately, when we start making changes within a pro-
cess with the laudable goal of protecting people from potential
exposures to COVID-19, we must not forget the capacity of the
human body and the physical demands of the job.
Many best practices for COVID-19 involve health screen-
ings and temperature checks. But if the temperature checks are
being performed by a person with a hand-held scanner, the risk
for potential ergonomics-related shoulder rotator cuff issues
may arise due to the extension of the arm (posture) and the fre-
quency (repetition) of scanning dozens of employees checking
in before their shift. Usually repetition is not a huge issue un-
32 ISE Magazine | www.iise.org/ISEmagazine
less coupled with force exertion, an awkward posture, extended
duration or another ergonomics risk factor. But coupling an
extended arm posture with frequent repetition may denitely
manifest in an upper extremity soft tissue disorder.
Barriers and guards are used to separate people, but the chal-
lenge is to avoid forcing employees to contort their bodies
while performing their jobs, which they often do in places that
have not previously paid close attention to good work design.
Many places added a requirement for employees to wear
gloves. The use of gloves is another “classic” ergonomics risk
factor. Gloves that are too small or tight are going to restrict
blood circulation and can cause nerve compression. Gloves that
are too large, bulky or loose will reduce a persons gripping
ability. This will then require the person to apply even greater
hand forces to accomplish a job task.
I strongly encourage companies making any modifications
to processes or equipment due to COVID-19 or any other rea-
son to engage in an independent ergonomics assessment of the
existing process and/or plans for future modication or opera-
tion. Only when a company’s key leaders know exactly how
employees will interact with a new or modified process can
they be confident they have reduced the risk of work-related
illnesses and injuries.
Timothy (Tim) Pottorff is a principal at QP3 ErgoSystems, an in-
dependent ergonomics and safety consulting company with national
and global capabilities. He earned bachelors and masters degrees in
industrial engineering from Kansas State University. He is a Certi-
ed Industrial Ergonomist (CIE) and holds the Associate in Risk
Management (ARM) designation. He has authored numerous ar-
ticles, including previous contributions in ISE, and has presented
many topics at professional ergonomics and safety conferences, includ-
ing the Applied Ergonomics Conference. He is an IISE and Applied
Ergonomics Society member.
Following ergonomic best practices amid COVID-19
Tips to make home offices more ergo-friendly
Since March 2020, office workers around the
world suddenly were forced to function outside
of their ergonomically designed professional
workplaces by adapting to kitchen tables, sofas,
beds and other home furnishings not created
for daylong shifts. A Sept. 4, 2020, article in
The New York Times, “The Pandemic of Work-
From-Home Injuries,” chronicled many of the
maladies they faced and possible remedies from
ergonomic and health experts.
Laptops: The portability of laptops means
many people work on them in various settings
not ideal for their posture. Most resting places
either cause the user to look down at the screen,
if lowered, or raise their hands to type, if elevated.
Both options put pressure on the spine and neck. The remedy: Add an external keyboard and mouse with a docking station. That
allows the user to elevate the monitor, perhaps with a stack of books, and raise the screen to eye level.
Chairs: Many kitchen chairs or recliners violate the idea of “neutral posture” – hips slightly higher than the knees, arms relaxed
at the side, neck relaxed and straight, forearms parallel to the ground and feet resting on the floor. The solution: If the chair is too
high for your feet to comfortably rest on the floor, use a footstool or other platform to rest your feet. If it’s too low, make it higher
with pillows or cushions.
Work breaks: Increased time on smartphones is another culprit, leading users to look down as they text or tweet. That puts
pressure on the neck and spine, New York chiropractor Karen Erickson explains. The solution: Take frequent breaks to rest eyes
and muscles. Scott Bautch, M.D., president of the American Chiropractic Association’s Council on Occupational Health, suggests
setting a timer for every 15 to 30 minutes as a reminder to move. He suggests frequent “microbreaks” of five seconds to change
posture or change eye direction; periodic “macro breaks” of three to five minutes that include deep breathing or stretching your
shoulders; and at least 30 minutes of exercise.
“It doesn’t always take that much,” said Dr. Michael Fredericson, professor of orthopedic surgery at Stanford University. “It’s really
the simple things. Get out. Take a walk.”