How COVID-19 Changed Ergonomics Regulations
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world underwent a profound transformation, affecting nearly every aspect of our lives. While public health measures and the search for a vaccine were at the forefront of the response, the pandemic also ushered in a new era for workplace safety and ergonomics regulations.
With remote work becoming the norm and health concerns taking center stage, both employers and regulatory bodies in the United States were faced with a compelling need to redefine the concept of ergonomic work environments.
In this article, we delve into how COVID-19 has reshaped ergonomics laws in the US and beyond, exploring the evolving landscape of workplace safety in a post-pandemic world.
COVID-19 revealed flaws in the system
As COVID-19 swept the globe, business productivity hinged exclusively on worker well-being, with organizations compelled to do whatever they could to keep the cogs turning. However, as an unintended consequence, these concerted efforts drew attention to the lack thereof during the pre-pandemic period.
In this way, COVID-19 served as a harsh spotlight, revealing long-standing deficiencies in worker protection measures, making it clear that businesses could no longer afford to overlook worker well-being in their pursuit of productivity — and that the two are in fact inherently linked.
The pandemic forced a paradigm shift in the way businesses approach worker safety. It prompted a broader conversation on the responsibilities of employers to protect their workforce, not just during crises, but as a fundamental aspect of operations.
Regulatory response to COVID-19 in the US
The United States, like many nations, faced the daunting task of adapting ergonomics regulations to the evolving realities brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and other regulatory bodies played a critical role in shaping these changes, emphasizing the importance of worker safety during the health crisis.
OSHA swiftly issued guidelines and recommendations to assist employers in providing a safe work environment for employees. These guidelines encompassed a range of areas, from ergonomics considerations for remote work to safety measures for essential workers on the front lines, such as social distancing, PPE and omnipresent sanitation facilities.
The focus on ergonomics as a process rather than an individual project became key, as did the need to pair ergonomic equipment with ergonomics training in order to make employees aware of the risks they’d face on a daily basis when working remotely.
To make these new employer obligations clear, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration published a 2020 guide that stated, “Employers are responsible in home worksites for hazards caused by materials, equipment, or work processes which the employer provides or requires to be used in an employee’s home.”
In other words, employers are equally responsible for ensuring employees have a safe and ergonomically sound workspace on and off company premises.
Yet, the pandemic didn’t just gesture in new, circumstantially-specific regulations; it brought to light existing OSHA regulations that had, in part, fallen out of focus.
For example, an essential element of OSHA’s COVID-19 regulations asserted that employers are required to furnish to each worker “employment and a place of employment, which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm” — as per Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act of 1970.
The shift to remote working
The transition to remote work, while essential for mitigating the spread of the virus, brought forth a multitude of ergonomic challenges.
Employees who once had carefully designed workstations in corporate offices suddenly found themselves working from improvised home setups, often lacking the ergonomic features they were accustomed to — dining tables became makeshift desks, and kitchen chairs replaced ergonomic office chairs.
In this new remote work paradigm, employers were forced to meet their OSHA regulations, particularly those set out in the aforementioned OSHA guide and Section 5(a)(1) of the OSH Act of 1970.
The risks of delaying or ignoring this duty of care quickly made themselves apparent, with studies revealing that significantly more home workers (73%) were experiencing lower back pain compared to employees who were able to remain on-site (35%).
It was also found that neck pain was on the rise, increasing from a prevalence rate of 16.2% to between 20.3% and 76.9% during the initial lockdown period, and that, on the whole, levels of neck, back and shoulder pain were rapidly increasing for employees working from home.
A 2020 Chubb study supported this statement, showing that 41% of Americans noticed new or worse shoulder, back and wrist pain after stints of remote working.
In response to these worrying statistics, research published on the National Library of Medicine website stated that “It is important to use the right and ergonomic equipment, tools, and methods to prevent possible fatigue or long-term injuries in the [home] working environment.”
Global response & the challenge ahead
The global pandemic transcended borders and reshaped the way we work on a global scale. As countries around the world confronted the common challenge of protecting their workforce from a highly contagious virus, we witnessed a convergence of approaches and strategies.
International organizations and regulatory bodies, such as the International Labour Organization (ILO), played a pivotal role in disseminating guidance and best practices that could be adopted universally. Lessons learned in one corner of the world became valuable insights for others as the global community navigated the pandemic’s complex dynamics.
However, the settling of international cooperation as we move away from pandemic has given way to country-specific legislation regarding the safety of remote workers, posing a daunting challenge to multinational organizations.
Meeting shifting ergonomic regulations across multiple borders requires steadfast dedication and significant resources, meaning ergonomics (and health and safety in general) must be a larger constituent of company structures moving forward.
Businesses are still recovering from the impact of the pandemic, and the world’s focus on home working safety has helped employees recover, too. But, as we move forward, it’s important to note that this is just the beginning of ergonomic laws and regulations upheaval — more change is coming.
COVID-19 didn’t trigger a one-time response from regulatory bodies in a state of panic, but a firm commitment to improving the safety and wellbeing of home workers, both now and in the future.
This means that the post-pandemic landscape demands businesses be flexible enough to accommodate consistently evolving standards and workforce needs — a resource-intensive process.
Cardinus can help
We offer in-depth ergonomics regulation reports and gap analysis reports for 80 countries across the globe. These reports keep you informed of all regional and global regulatory changes in real-time, ensuring you can make essential interventions immediately, protecting your employees from harm, and your business from non-compliance.
Stay informed of changing regulations in your operating countries with two free ergonomics regulation reports of your choice.
The COVID-19 pandemic reshaped the landscape of ergonomics and workplace safety, emphasizing the critical importance of protecting workers’ well-being. It uncovered flaws in the system, prompted regulatory responses, and ushered in a new era of remote work.
As such, businesses face the challenge of adapting to shifting standards and workforce needs. It can be difficult to shoulder this responsibility alone, but the collaborative spirit inspired by the global pandemic needn’t cease now COVID-19 is under more control.
Cardinus is here to assist by providing real-time regulatory updates and comprehensive reports to ensure employee safety and business compliance — a load shared is a load halved.