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Working remotely is one of the biggest trends in workplaces, but the productivity and convenience gains may come with a price tag: our physical health. Ergonomic injuries like text neck, cellphone elbow, and digital eye strain are becoming more commonplace as we spend longer hours working and organizing our lives online, on increasingly smaller, portable devices.
The advances made from developing an ergonomic office over the years - think sit/stand desks, adjustable chairs, adequate and well-designed working spaces - are giving way to newer considerations from working remotely. Unconventional work spaces, non-ergonomic equipment, and constant access to technology present challenges unseen in traditional offices.
Although texting and tapping in front of a screen is not particularly hazardous for a worker who does them only occasionally, the situation becomes more critical when done for long periods each working day. The Canadian Internet Registration Authority reports that nearly 3 out of every 4 Canadians spend at least 3-4 hours online each day. Almost half use a smartphone, tablet or other mobile device to access the internet, and that number continues to climb as desktop computer usage steadily declines.
The resulting injuries from these mobile devices rarely originate from a single event or cause, but rather are the result of a combination of factors including fixed postures which are awkward, uncomfortable, and maintained for too long a time. Add in repetitive, deliberate movements and a high or constant pace of work, and the resulting stress can cause body muscles to tense up. Tense muscles increase the risk for these ergonomic injuries.
Text neck and texting thumb
According to Statistics Canada, 76% of Canadians owned a smartphone in 2016. Text neck results from positioning our necks in an unnatural position - usually downward - to view mobile devices. Over time, the pressure placed on your neck can lead to pain, pinched nerves, herniated discs and other issues.
Constant texting and sending emails over long periods using smartphones can also lead to texting thumb, an overuse injury that affects that tendons running along the thumb side of the wrist. Symptoms include swelling, pain and reduced function.
Workers can be mindful of maintaining a healthy position by holding their phones in front of their faces, or near eye level, with their elbows relaxed below their shoulders, when working. Regular breaks away from your devices can promote blood flow and recovery, and even short micro-breaks of a few seconds can be beneficial. Stretches and exercises to improve posture can also provide relief. If you do experience pain, report your concerns to your employer, health and safety committee, and doctor.
Workers who hold their elbow flexed for a long period when speaking on the phone may compress their ulnar nerve, which runs along the inside of the elbow. Known also as cubital tunnel syndrome, cellphone elbow's symptoms include numbness, tingling, burning and pain in the forearm and hand. Over time, it can lead to issues with using that hand, including fatigue, weakness, and an inability to grasp and perform various motor tasks. In most cases, changing body positions, switching hands, or using a hands-free kit are effective at treating the symptoms. As with other injuries, early identification and treatment increases the chances of a full recovery.
Digital eye strain
Working on a computer for twenty hours per week or more is common. Over time, the need to focus on a screen that is held too close can be very physically demanding on the eyes. Compound that with ever-smaller screens, dimly-lit locales, and glare from various light sources while using a mobile device, and workers could experience vision problems known as digital eye strain or computer vision syndrome. Symptoms include eyestrain, headaches, blurred vision, dry eyes, and neck and shoulder pain. Workers should have their eyes regularly examined, especially if they are experiencing any of these symptoms, are having difficulties reading, or have a family history of eye or vision problems.
Additional tips for employers
With only 15% of Canadians reporting that they have been off the grid for a week or more in the last year, it is evident that we have grown increasingly dependent on our smart devices to work and stay connected. Workplaces can remain flexible and innovative while protecting mobile workers from potential pains and strains, by focusing on changes in job and workplace design, and work practices.
Tips & Tools
Blacklegged ticks continue to burrow themselves into the news cycle. They are hard to detect, they are increasing in numbers, and their preferred habitat continues to expand in Canada. Even in their early life, the nymphal stage, when they are as small as a poppy seed, infected ticks can attach themselves to you and transmit the bacteria that causes Lyme disease.
Lyme disease isn't new to Canada, but it has only been since about 2012 that the ticks that carry the bacteria have become plentiful, mostly due to warmer winters that allow more of them to survive. The number of reported cases of Lyme disease in Canada rose from 144 cases in 2009 to 992 in 2016 to 2,025 in 2017.
Risk areas in Canada with blacklegged tick populations currently include regions of British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, and New Brunswick, plus all of Nova Scotia.
The risk of getting a tick bite starts when the weather warms up in May and through September. Infection rates increase in the spring and summer months because the ticks are still small and therefore harder to see. Adult ticks can also be active in the winter, if the winter is mild and there is not much snow.
Who is at risk?
Many occupations may be at risk, including forestry, farming, veterinarians, construction, landscaping, ground keepers, park or wildlife management, and anyone who either works outside or has contact with animals that may carry ticks (including domesticated animals like dogs, cats, goats, cows, and horses).
Similarly, any person who spends a lot time outdoors (hiking, camping, birding, golfing, hunting, or fishing), especially in grassy or wooded areas, may also be at risk.
Tips to reduce the risk
The best way to prevent Lyme disease is to prevent tick bites. Here are some ways to protect yourself if you venture into forests or overgrown areas between the woods and open spaces:
Health effects of Lyme
If left untreated, Lyme disease can lead to severe headaches, rashes, facial paralysis, arthritis, heart disorders, and neurological disorders. The good news is that if a tick bite is caught early, within the first few hours or weeks, a course of antibiotics can be taken to prevent the disease. If you are diagnosed in the later stages of the disease, you may require a longer course of antibiotics and may experience symptoms that persist after treatment.
Share this article with anyone who may be at risk of coming into contact with ticks. By spreading the word, you can help prevent the spread of Lyme disease.
Health and Safety To Go
This month's feature podcast is Minimizing the Risks: Health and Safety Tips for Truck Drivers. Also listen to a new interview on the topic of harassment in the workplace.
From working long days, driving long distances, and the pressures of meeting delivery deadlines, truck drivers work under unique conditions that present many health and safety challenges. In this podcast episode, CCOHS shares steps that both employers and workers can take to minimize the health and safety risks that come with long-haul trucking.
The podcast runs 4:51 minutes. Listen to the podcast now.
Gossip, intimidation, and offensive behaviour. These are just a few examples of harassment. Do they exist in your workplace? Are you or a co-worker the victim? Listen to this interview with Jan Chappel, CCOHS Senior Technical Specialist, and discover tips and advice as you learn more about harassment in the workplace.
The podcast runs 7:32 minutes. Listen to the podcast now.
CCOHS produces free monthly podcasts on a wide variety of topics designed to keep you current with information, tips, and insights into the health, safety, and well-being of working Canadians. You can download the audio segment to your computer or MP3 player and listen to it at your own convenience... or on the go!
A lack of civility and respect are often at the root of violence, harassment and bullying issues within workplaces. How do you champion and prioritize a civil and healthy workplace before it gives way to a toxic culture ripe with resentment, rudeness, and violence?
A crucial part of any healthy workplace is a workplace violence prevention program that outlines preventive measures against all forms of harassment and violence - including sexual, domestic and workplace. Whether driven by legislation or motivated by doing the right thing, policies and procedures need to be comprehensive, supported by leadership, and underscored by an environment that values respect, consideration and professionalism.
Gain practical knowledge and leave with tools so you can take action to minimize the potential for harassment and violence in your workplace, in this one-day workshop developed by CCOHS.
Sessions will be held on September 12, November 18, and January 14 in Mississauga, Ontario.Learn more and register
Workers who are engaged get a sense of passion, joy, and reward from coming to work. Learn how to foster a positive workplace culture and increase engagement at The Conference Board of Canada's Better Workplace Conference from September 30 to October 2, 2019, in Whistler, B.C. Under the themes of leadership, well-being and safety, you will gain new perspectives and insights from experts and leaders from across the country, and leave re-charged, re-energized, and recommitted to building better, safer, and healthier spaces for all workers to thrive.
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The Health and Safety Report, a free monthly newsletter produced by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS), provides information, advice, and resources that help support a safe and healthy work environment and the total well being of workers.
© 2020, Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety
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Length: 3:24 minutes
September 6-12, 2020
October 1, 2020