Can Employee's Poor Use of Ergonomic Office Furniture Lead to Workers' Compensation Payout?

April 11, 2019

Man exercising in his chair at his desk.
Kip Soteres

If you have started programs introducing ergonomic office furniture to employees, you're on your way to increasing employee productivity and satisfaction, and reducing the costs associated with work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), which accounts for about one-third of all workers' compensation cases of injury and illness, estimates OSHA.

It's imperative to ensure the ongoing proper use of ergonomic office furniture such as standing desks. As the ergonomic furniture industry matures, early assertions about the unqualified benefits of such furniture have begun to be challenged. U.S. News & World Report and others are citing new studies that have found, for example, that standing for prolonged periods of time can be just as hazardous to your health as sitting.

The Ergonomics Assessment

Make sure you are working with ergonomics experts licensed by an organization such as The Board of Certification in Professional Ergonomics. Worksite International points out "there is no state or national licensing body at this time to credential Ergonomists." Allowing inexpert people to conduct ergonomic assessments can lead to unfounded recommendations that do more harm than good, and potentially put your organization at risk.

Proper Usage and Holistic Solutions

One way to protect against bad actors in an unregulated field is to educate employees on the proper use of office furniture and to encourage healthier habits. Employees who take appropriate breaks away from their desks are more likely to get the full benefit of their ergonomically designed work station when they return. Improved fitness can enhance core strength and improve posture. Chair exercises, like chair running and leg lifts, are another way to support employees doing sedentary office work.

In this light, ergonomic office furniture is just one part of broader solutions designed to enhance worker productivity and reduce the likelihood of needing workers' compensation.

Early Reporting and Early Follow Up

OSHA strongly encourages employers to set up systems that allow employees to report MSD symptoms easily and as quickly as possible. EHS Today takes that additional step, noting that follow-up is very important after replacing furniture or other features in the working environment. A new arrangement may feel good for a few weeks because it is different from the environment that was causing discomfort, but that new arrangement can introduce problems of its own that aren't apparent until later. OSHA explicitly calls out the need to "evaluate progress."

Work closely with employees before, during and after the change to ensure you are monitoring the environment and that it continues to work for the employee. This also highlight the critical importance of engaging employees directly in any change that you are introducing to their work environment. Actively solicit their input and implement their feedback to create a healthy enthusiasm for their ergonomic office furniture while also making it safe for them to note what is and is not working.

For example, some types of work simply are not conducive to standing or treadmills desks. Experts say that our brains do some fine-motor tasks better while sitting, notes U.S. News and World Report. While a standing desk might solve for one set of problems, it could create others that can also adversely affect productivity.

Protect Yourself and Your Employees

Workers' compensation is complicated and ergonomic furniture can introduce new risks even as they solve for old problems. The safest bet is to work closely with employees, ensure the expertise of the ergonomic assessors who are helping you evaluate the work environment, and continually monitor after making any changes to any employee's ergonomic office furniture.

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