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Analysis: Transforming the Mobile Workplace While Keeping an Eye on Ergonomics and Underlying Health Risks

While mobile device use in and outside of the office is still too new to know the long-term impact on employees, this reality holds true: Workplace injuries can leave your company at a competitive disadvantage.

August 17, 2012
Related Topics: Top Stories - Frontpage, Health Care Costs, Health and Wellness, Health Care Benefits, Technology
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Have you considered how mobile devices impact employee work habits? Many workers have received an e-mail from a colleague at 3 a.m., or sent one themselves.

Why should an employer care? Employees who are hyperproductive may be good for business, but their work habits and their use of mobile devices may end up costing a business in the long run. Consider how this high level of work activity could ultimately lead to injury and a possible increase in workers' compensation claims.

It's easy to overlook the risk involved with this type of employee behavior. But consider how some employees may position themselves while working on mobile devices. It's not uncommon to see a person positioned unnaturally with their head looking down to type on a smartphone, or sitting cross-legged on a bed or floor hunched over a laptop.

It's debatable whether the increase in remote work activity is the result of companies relying on fewer employees to handle larger workloads or simply an evolutionary response to the presence of new technology; perhaps it's a bit of both. What we do know is that mobile devices are revolutionizing today's workplace the way computers did 30 years ago.

Along with this new technology revolution come new risks. According to a July study by Sunnyvale, California-based Good Technology, 80 percent of U.S working adults continue to work after leaving the office. Mobile work environments are ripe for injuries, such as laptop burns, repetitive motion strain, neck injury and chronic musculoskeletal damage. How can employers ensure that employees are practicing safe work habits while working outside of the office?

Ergonomics experts apply industrial engineering, physiology and more to develop ergonomic equipment that reduces employee health risks. In the U.S., employers have recognized the benefit of these advancements and have adopted ergonomically friendly equipment and furniture in offices since the early 1990s. This trend not only had a positive impact on workers' compensation claims, but provided safer, healthier work environments.

Unfortunately, that same consideration has yet to be applied to the use of mobile devices. Yet, an employer's workers' compensation policy applies to employees working for their employer while at home or in another location.

While the continuous use of mobile devices—at home, at the airport, during a presentation—is a relatively new phenomenon, businesses can take initial steps to minimize this exposure by implementing a few simple tactics:

  • Invest: As quickly as work habits shift to meet growing demands, technological innovations are bringing new ergonomic equipment for mobile use to the market, including laptop stands and Bluetooth keyboards. Even cars can be transformed into fully functional wireless communication and mobile computing machines with devices that properly position and mount screens, keyboards and other equipment. To avoid paying later, supply your employees with the appropriate equipment today.
  • Evaluate: Controlling ergonomic risk factors will be key to reducing corporate liabilities. The best way to meet this goal is to develop standards and programs with direct employee input. This collective planning process will better ensure that the employee has the proper equipment, workstation set-up and tools to work more productively and safely in the home, coffee shop or airport.
  • Educate: If supplying your employees with ergonomic equipment for mobile use is the first step in the process, then training them to use it effectively is the second. Offer tutorials to educate employees on the health risks of working on mobile devices, including neck and back strain, "BlackBerry thumb" and "iPod/iPad finger." Employees can reduce their health risks by taking technology holidays, using auto-text features to write shorter messages and taking rest breaks.

While mobile device use in the workplace is still too new to know the long-term impact on employees, this reality holds true: Workplace injuries can leave your company at a competitive disadvantage.

It's critical to keep an eye on all possible threats to employee health and productivity, whether inside or outside of office walls. Reducing your corporate risk by investing in education and evaluating safe work conditions will, consequently, help to provide safe environments for all employees and mitigate costs.

Tina Minter is a loss-control risk specialist at the Chubb Group of Insurance Cos. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.

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