“I forgot how to do homework. My back is killing me. I need to get off of this old couch.”
“Then you need to take care of that,” my wife recently told me over the phone from Missouri. “There’s no one there besides you to see it and point that out.”
“You’d think for a writer that I’d have telework down,” I replied. “I need to use a desk and a good chair. I’m too old to get by long with poor posture.”
Alright. In perspective, my aches and pains are small potatoes in this terrible pandemic. Hardship and suffering are rampant. And I was not battling the virus or at any significant risk, unlike our courageous health care workers and essential services workers. I was working from home, writing an article about how U.S. Air Force Airmen assigned to the I.G. Brown Training and Education Center are teleworking.
As it turns out, that and my hurt back all got me thinking about ergonomics.
Most of us are familiar with the concept of safe workspaces. We did our tasks with similar posture and movements in those same offices and conditions as our coworkers. That is one way to look at it. But there is a price to pay if done incorrectly now that many of us are at home.
Did we alter ourselves to fit the workspace, or did we set the workspace up to suit our wellbeing?
During decades of photojournalism for the military, I’d work a news story from wherever I could find the time — on an aircraft cargo net, in a vehicle, in a hanger, on the ground, or a hotel room. But those field assignments never lasted more than a few days to a few weeks. They were not long enough to affect my readiness.
Reaching from a soft couch, hunched over toward my coffee table to type on my laptop for months? That’s conforming and contorting myself to the workspace. Setting up a desk or a folding table, using a sturdy, high-backed, adjustable chair to promote proper posture and keeping the computer screen at arm’s length is adjusting the workspace to serve me.
Wherever and whatever our service involves, it should not take muscle strain to remind us that ergonomics are essential. Consider that in our now empty offices, we had the equipment, the building engineering, and the safety managers who protected us from tripping over floor clutter, straining eyes in poor lighting, hurting ourselves at makeshift workstations, or many other hazards.
I think we have enough sickness on our hands not to increase what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls “musculoskeletal disorders from ergonomics,” which are considered more severe than common nonfatal injury or illness. To make yourself combat ineffective by sitting on a couch seems far-fetched, but it is possible.
An assessment of your home should be done when getting into extended telework, especially if you do not have a personal office. At the least, keep in mind that living rooms and dining rooms can be inferior alternatives. It’s on us to make them safe.
The U.S. Air Force Safety Center online promotes teleworking safety for service members. You can go to their web page: www.safety.af.mil/Divisions/Occupational-Safety-Division/Home-Safety/Teleworking/. Some of their tips include:
– Sit with your hips and knees at a 90-degree angle
– Keep your feet flat on the floor or on a footrest
– Keep your arms relaxed at your sides, with elbows at 70 – 135 degrees
– Change posture frequently
– Place the monitor directly in front of you about an arm’s length away
– Position the top of the monitor screen at or below eye level
– Adjust the keyboard or chair height to keep forearms, wrists, and hands in a straight line
– Place mouse and other input devices near to and at the same height as your keyboard
– Keep your elbows close to your body
– Allow ample clearance to move your knees and legs under the keyboard and desk
– Avoid contact stress with the edge of the desk and keyboard
– Adjust window shades or decrease overhead lighting
– Adjust the monitor screen or add an anti-glare filter
– Add a task light to illuminate paper references
Getting set up ergonomically was the cure to my problem. No. I’m not embarrassed, and I’m not going to keep it to myself if we are all in this pandemic battle together. I’m sitting up straight.
(Master Sgt. Mike Smith is the Public Affairs manager for the Air National Guard training and education center in East Tennessee.)