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Key tips for preventing MSDs in the era of COVID-19

The spread of COVID-19 has meant that many workers have been forced to telework from their homes and other locations. While remote working has some benefits, the increase in sedentary positions, combined with the lack of ergonomic remote workspaces during the pandemic, might contribute to the development or aggravation of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) among workers.

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Despite this, there are steps that workers and businesses can take to prevent the development and worsening of MSDs and other health issues affected by teleworking. Our bodies are not designed to be sedentary – they are made for movement – so here are some top tips on how to tackle MSDs while teleworking throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

On your feet! Minimising seated positions

In Europe, 28% of workers sit down at work almost all the time, and 60% of workplaces report sitting as a risk factor. Working from home involves long periods of sitting which can be detrimental to workers’ health. The lack of movement while seated places a higher load on the intervertebral discs and impairs circulation of the blood, which reduces the supply of oxygen to the muscles. 

This risk is now even greater since COVID-19 has caused many employees to work in poorly adapted environments. To prevent the development and worsening of an MSD, employees should ensure that they are only seated for 2 hours at a time and take the opportunity to stretch every 20-30 minutes.

Standing during telephone calls and short online meetings can help reduce seated time and maintaining a good posture while sitting can lessen the impact of sedentary work. While seated, workers should incorporate the habit of rocking their pelvises, stretching their necks, shifting their weight, and leaning back in their chair. 

There is a strong business case to encourage employees to be seated less, since workers with MSDs are more likely to be absent from work or forced to take early retirement. Businesses should plan work around each individual worker to minimise the employee’s seated time, ensuring that they are not sat down for more than 5 hours per day.

Get your muscles moving! Exercising while teleworking

Physical exercise is a vital part of any teleworking routine and finding the time to work out helps workers to experience better job performance and higher levels of productivity, satisfaction and health. Since the detrimental effects of sitting cannot be fully compensated by exercise in leisure time, regular short workouts are more beneficial than one longer session.

This could be carried out through taking the stairs where possible, allocating time away from screens to stretch or move, and going for a walk during the lunch break. Businesses can also promote a physically active workplace culture by encouraging employees to take part in stretch breaks in meetings or after conference calls and motivating them to take short breaks to work out and move.

Adapting working environments and routines

When introducing remote working measures, there are a number of specific risk factors to consider to ensure every adapted working environment covers all of the ergonomic aspects required to guarantee the safety and health of workers. These factors may work independently or in any combination, and include elements connected to the physical working space, organisational factors, and the characteristics of individual workers (such as age, gender, physical capacity and prior medical history). 

There are a number of adaptations an employee can make to reduce these risk factors when teleworking. These include setting up a light and well-ventilated space to work, using ergonomic work furniture and allocating enough space to be comfortable. Businesses can provide guidance on how to set up an effective home workstation.

Aside from the physical risks, it’s also important to consider the psychosocial risks of teleworking. Factors such as stress, pressure, anxiety and isolation can have an impact on workers’ wellbeing, which in turn can increase the risk of developing MSDs. Monitoring workloads, reducing pressure and ensuring that employees feel supported are all methods of reducing the psychosocial risk factor. 

A large selection of tools and guidance in relation to preventing MSDs during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly in relation to teleworking, are available through EU-OSHA’s database of resources. Two Napo films, on the importance of taking regular breaks and keeping active at work, are available to communicate the message in a fun and engaging way. More information on how to safely adapt workplaces is available through OSHwiki and for further tips and information, you can also follow the campaign on FacebookLinkedIn and Twitter