You may be scratching your head at our title. What’s ergonomics got to do with law? Maybe even asking, what the heck is ergonomics? Well in this post we will answer both of those questions and tell you why workplace ergonomics should be on the radar of employees and employers alike.
Ergonomics is the science and study of working conditions with respect to the physical body and duties of the worker. If you work in the public sector or a large organization you’ve probably heard this word, maybe you have even had an occupational therapist come and give you an ergonomic assessment! Lucky you! Ergonomic adjustments for office workers will include things like chairs, standing desks, special keyboards or computer displays.
Ergonomics in the Workplace
Ergonomics is on our mind because the Ontario government recently published a useful new guide called Ergonomics in the workplace. As the guide explains, and as we know from working with clients, ergonomic workplace issues can impact all kinds of workers from construction workers to desk workers and everyone in between. Ergonomic issues can be things like sitting in an awkward position, being in a desk set up where you are constantly having to look over your shoulder to serve clients at the counter, holding a vibrating jackhammer all day, lifting or transferring a patient out of bed in a care setting, changing a beer keg and so on. Think anytime you’re using your body to do your job, yes even if all your body is doing is sitting and clicking a mouse.
Ergonomics and the Occupational Health and Safety Act
The Occupation Health and Safety Act (OHSA) applies to almost all workers and workplaces. Covered employers have a legal obligation to protect workers from hazards, including those that could be caused by poor ergonomics. Ergonomic issues most often turn into workplaces issues when workers develop musculoskeletal disorders (“MSD”) and/or fall.
The OHSA requires employers to keep equipment, materials and protective devices in good condition. Even things like office chairs that don’t raise and lower properly could cause MSD through extended awkward posture. MSD can result in lost productivity and lost time for employees. Even poor lighting is considered an ergonomic issue that could result in employee eye strain or headaches.
Employers also have a duty to provide information, instruction and supervision on health and safety. This could be where an ergonomic assessment comes in. Employers have an obligation to teach their employees how to do things like lift safely. Employers also have an obligation to communicate hazards to employees and to take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances to protect workers.
Ergonomics in the Modern Workforce
Many workplaces are moving towards more flexible work arrangements where employees are not necessarily spending all their time working in an office. Some employees work exclusively outside of the office. How do ergonomics and the employer’s OHSA obligations apply in these workplaces? OSHA does not apply to work an employee performs in his or her own home. However, even where there are no legal obligations to do so, it’s a good idea to make sure that your employee’s home office is set up in an ergonomically effective way to ensure that your employee is as comfortable and productive as they can be.