Monday, September 20, 2004

Home Work: Ergonomic Pain in the Neck

Now this is a fascinating article for anyone who remembers the (in)famous "home work" controversy of January 2000. That's when the Washington Post's "labor" reporter, Frank Swoboda basically accused OSHA of implementing a policy where it would inspect the "workplaces" of telecommuters and people working at home.

The controversy stemmed from an OSHA letter of interpretation requested by a company that was considering shutting down its office and having its employees work from home. The company wanted to know what health and safety obligations it might still have. OSHA sent back a hypothetical, but overly detailed letter listing every possible health and safety hazard for which the employer would, in technical legal terms, still be responsible, including ergonomic hazards. The Post suggested the employer was responsible for "even the parent who has to dash out of the office to be with a sick child and finishes a memo at home" and implied that OSHA could theoretically inspect and fine employers of people working from home. The right wing took the hand-off and ran for five touchdowns.

Coming in the midst of the ergonomics wars, the right-wing, anti-OSHA, anti-worker, anti-ergonomics zealots had a field day with endless hearings, Congressional document requests and attacks by conservative newspaper columnists. It would have been laughably absurd if it hadn't taken a month of the agency's resources to finally put the whole thing to rest by finally conceding that "The employers of millions of Americans who "telecommute" will not be held liable for any federal health and safety violations that occur at home offices."

Which makes this article fascinating reading. It's about home workers suffering serious back injuries because they can't afford to purchase expensive ergonomically correct equipment and often can't afford the medical treatment they need after suffering work-related musculoskeletal injuries at home.
Caryn Donley thought lower-back pain was a permanent part of her life.

The Fort Lauderdale real-estate agent — who has worked from her home for the past 10 years — tried everything to get rid of the pain. She bought a $200 ergonomic desk chair, popped painkillers and asked the trainers at her gym for advice. None of it worked.

"I didn't know what to do. I just thought I was stuck with it," Donley said.
Then, through friends, she met Ed Brown, the owner of Fort Lauderdale's A-2-Z Ergonomics, an ergonomic office equipment dealer and consultant.

Brown saw Donley's office chair and suggested she try one of his for a week.

The $400 chair "was like manna from heaven," Donley said with a mixture of enthusiasm and relief. She hasn't had a backache since she bought it.

In a traditional office, where ergonomics now is often partially considered, Donley might have gotten help sooner.

But she and many others who work from their homes — whether they are telecommuting for a company, running a small business or taking home extra work from the office — rarely have the resources they need to create workstations that won't cause them pain.
Many or most workers injured while working at home don't seek treatment -- at least until the pain becomes intolerable. Some don't recognize that it's work that's causing the pain, others can't afford medical treatment.

And then there's the cost of doing something to prevent the injuries from recurring:
Ergonomically correct chairs run as high as $1,000, footrests and computer glare screens start at about $35 each, and an ergonomic mouse can cost as much as $140.

The modifications can add up and take a bite out of your wallet, unless your employer is paying the bill.

Local therapists say there are low-cost ways to create a comfortable home office.

For instance, computer users can tape folders to the sides of their computer monitors to decrease glare.

They can roll up large towels to use for lower-back support. Other tips: Slide a three-ring binder underneath the monitor to raise and tilt it. Use phone books as footrests.

"It is a rarity, other than a chair, that we will ever tell anybody to buy anything because it's too expensive," said Storch, the occupational therapist. "It kills me to see these people spend this kind of money."
There has been a lot of attention paid over the past several years to employers using contractors to do the most dangerous work in chemical plants, steel mills and meat processing plants. That way, the employer doesn't have to maintain a full time staff, and may not be responsible for benefits, nor much of the safety training or personal protective equpment of the contractors. Clearly, the same "benefits" are available for employers of the 23.4 million self-employed people worked from home last year, who are left to purchase the expensive chairs and workstations themselves, or suffer the painful consequences.

Pretty nifty if you can get away with it.