Staying Safe and Well in the Home Office

Apr. 1, 2020

With no commute and everything under one’s own control, working from home can feel safer than a typical day at the office. Yet the home office presents its own set of safety concerns that are easily overlooked in familiar surroundings. 

Here are six common health and safety issues associated with working from home and the best ways to handle them. 

Ergonomics and Exercise

Concerns about sitting and working in the proper position can fall by the wayside as working from home changes established habits. Freed from office chairs and desks, many will move to the bed or couch—not the best places for working on computers or doing repetitive work like typing or data entry. 

Office work should be done in a neutral posture—back straight with lumbar support, hands on the keyboard or mouse with elbows relaxed and arms at the sides; computer or laptop screens should be at eye level. This is best achieved with a conventional desk and adjustable office chair. A straight-backed chair at a kitchen table is an acceptable alternative if an office area is not available in the home. Working hunched over a coffee table or lying back with a laptop propped at an angle is not a good idea and will lead to strain in the lower back, shoulders and arms. 

At the office, people tend to get up often—to chat with colleagues, visit the break room, use the rest room or refill water bottles. With fewer distractions, people working from home are often less likely to leave their seat regularly and vary their posture. EHS recommends dedicating at least 5 minutes of every hour to a non-computer related task, such as standing while talking on the phone, stretching, or a quick walk around the room or yard while focusing on a distant object. 

The Princeton University Occupational Health website offers desk stretching exercise videos as part of its useful section of information on ergonomics and computer use. Interested in yoga? Verywell recommends starting or punctuating your work day with some sun salutations. Our very own Lewis Center for the Arts offers free online courses in ballet, Pilates, yoga, conditioning, hip-hop dance, and music theater dance for Princeton ID holders.

Office Set Up

Remote work should be conducted in a home office style environment when possible, utilizing a computer desk and office chair. If you bring a laptop home, be sure to also bring an external keyboard, mouse and monitor, if these things are available to you. 

Work areas should be well lighted, with room to spread out papers. While placing a printer next to a computer can be convenient, consider setting it up so that you have to rise from your chair to retrieve papers—a trick to get more movement in during the work day. 

Set up your office in a quiet corner or lightly-trafficked area of the home free from distractions such as TV. If work must be done in a common area, arrange with family members for you to have dedicated quiet time (a whiteboard or chart with post-its can help with this). 

In addition to organizing your day, it helps to organize your tasks. Do-to lists and prioritizing work are very helpful to staying focused and productive, as well as reducing stress. We’ve heard good things about the Pomodoro Technique, a strategy for breaking complex tasks out into short, timed intervals. 

Electronics and Fire Safety

Fire safety rules should never take a hiatus and the same rules apply to the home office as to any workplace. Computers, printers and monitors should be plugged into a power strip with surge protection. Do not “daisy chain” surge protectors or extension cords (plugging one into another to extend reach or number of available plugs). Extension cords should be reserved for short-term, temporary use. 

If using a space heater, plug directly into a grounded wall outlet and maintain at least a three-foot distance from yourself or any other flammable item. Keep heaters out of the way of foot traffic and exit pathways. Choose a space heater with auto-shut off protection and NEVER leave a heater running when you are not present. EHS has additional space heater tips.

Empty your office waste receptacle regularly and don’t allow excessive clutter and paper waste to build up in your work space. Burning scented candles or incense might set a nice mood, but is not recommended.

Finally, all appliances, surge protectors, cords and components in your home should be certified by UL or another nationally-recognized testing laboratory.

Breaks and Quitting Time

As mentioned above, regular breaks are important to being able to maintain energy and focus through the day, as well as avoid problems such as eye strain. As much as possible, establish dedicated blocks to time devoted exclusively to work, with built in breaks for lunch and short breathers, and a clearly demarcated “quitting time,” after which work is normally not conducted. Many home workers like to mark the transition with a daily ritual to replace the commute, such as exercising or walking the dog, that serves as a “bridge” between work tasks and personal time or evening with the family. 

Nutrition

Without the cues of the office environment, regular eating and hydration habits can fall by the wayside. Try to abide by normal schedules for eating—do not skip meals or “graze” on snacks throughout the day, and be sure to stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water. 

For those all-important occasional snack breaks, nutritionists recommend fruit or protein-rich foods such as nuts, avocados and the like, rather than starchy chips or sweets.  

Work vs Life Balance

One of the most important lessons from seasoned home workers is maintaining distinct times for work and leisure. Switching back and forth between the two or allowing one to “bleed” into the other keeps us from giving either the full attention it deserves. Hopefully, the advice above will help to maintain this balance and make both work and personal time as satisfying as possible. 

One last tip: don’t be too hard on yourself! Like any work situation, working from home can be stressful, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Choose work-from-home strategies that work best for you and don’t feel you have to be some time-management guru like Dogbert. What you don’t have time to finish today can be done tomorrow.  

Above all, be well!