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Perspectives: Artificial intelligence deployed to reduce ergonomic risks as employees return

worker with neck pain

Businesses contemplating the return of employees to physical workplaces have a lot on their plates, regardless of whether they’re updating office layouts to protect workers from COVID-19 or reopening facilities that were shut down during the pandemic. Careful planning around these moves is critical, but it is also important for companies to ensure that other workplace considerations do not fall by the wayside — namely, potential ergonomic risks. 

Whether adopting permanent or hybrid work-from-home models, returning to the office or resuming activity at facilities, it is crucial for companies to make sure they have ergonomically sound set-ups in place to safeguard employees’ wellbeing. While doing so has historically been more of an art than a science, the use of artificial intelligence in ergonomic risk evaluations has made identifying and preventing such risks much easier.

Leveraging data 

Regardless of a company’s workspace — be it a traditional office or more industrial setting — potential ergonomic exposures abound. Typically, these risks relate to the force, frequency and duration with which employees carry out their work. 

In office settings, duration is an especially common trigger, as employees normally sit at their desks for long periods each day. Desks, monitors or chairs that are not the appropriate height or distance from employees’ bodies — such that employees are left in static, suboptimal postures — could eventually lead to injuries such as chronic fatigue, headaches, reduced core flexibility, lower back pain and more. 

Companies should work with their insurance agents or brokers to seek out insurers with robust risk consulting offerings that can help them mitigate such risks. 

Some insurers offer AI-enabled assessment tools that empower employees to evaluate their workspaces and course-correct pain points contributing to ergonomic risks. For example, if an employee indicates that they’re sitting at a fixed-height desk that does not align with their own height, assessment tools may suggest ways to optimize the employee’s positioning, perhaps by adjusting their chair or monitor or even placing something under their feet, depending on the scenario. 

Similar tools can be used in industrial settings. In these spaces, common ergonomic risks include, but are not limited to, handling and lifting heavy materials, repetitive motions and suboptimal postures. 

To help mitigate risks that could arise due to these triggers, safety managers should tour their facilities and survey how materials are handled and stored. As a best practice, companies should avoid storing materials at or near ground level and above shoulder level, as these placements often lead to high-risk postures and poor ergonomics. Identifying these basic material-handling tasks will allow safety managers to reassess current processes and make adjustments so that unnecessary lifting and awkward postures can be avoided. 

Safety managers should also investigate whether workstations are set up so that tasks can be completed within the belt to chest level, close to the operator’s body. This positioning allows employees to work from a more neutral posture, in which they are less likely to get hurt. 

In addition to these measures, workplace safety managers should consider leveraging data-driven assessment tools similar to those used for office ergonomic evaluations. Some tools allow safety managers to conduct assessments in real time using their mobile devices.

After analyzing onsite work, data is uploaded to the cloud and presented on a dashboard that offers a comprehensive risk analysis of the entire body. Through this analysis, safety managers can discern which body segment is at the highest risk and subsequently deploy resources and plan more effectively. Such measures might include improving workstation design and implementing material handling lifting aids — to reduce strain on employees’ backs and upper extremities — or introducing more effective job rotation schedules. 

Cost benefits

These data-driven assessment tools not only help ensure worker safety across industrial and office settings, they also help protect companies’ bottom lines. 

While purchasing solutions recommended by these data-driven assessments might seem like a big investment, they can help companies avoid costly workers compensation claims down the line that are several times more expensive than the solutions themselves. To illustrate this point, the National Safety Council’s “Injury Facts” publication analyzed findings from the National Council on Compensation Insurance’s workers compensation statistical plan database and found that, on average, workers compensation claims netted out to about $41,000 in 2017-2018. If a company purchases a load-leveling table for around $3,000, for example, and the table prevents even just one claim, the potential cost savings can be significant. 

This is especially important to consider given that strenuous physical workplace activities, even if not performed regularly, could aggravate pre-existing employee injuries. By doing everything in their power to reduce the physical toll work may have on employees, companies are in a better position to prevent incidents from occurring.

Additionally, some of these assessment tools can track assets that employees may have taken home while working remotely and may benefit them upon their return to the office. This reflects further potential for companies to save on equipment that employees may already have at their disposal. 

Working together

If employees are experiencing extreme discomfort or ergonomic risks are exceptionally high, companies may benefit from consulting an ergonomist. To this end, companies should work with their insurance agents or brokers to identify insurers with deep experience in ergonomics that also offer personal consultations — virtually, in-person or a combination of the two — and customized solutions to meet client needs. 

In addition to consultations, some insurers offer training programs to help employees protect themselves from ergonomic risks. From standing up and taking a break after a long period of sitting to learning about proper body posture, there are several steps employees can take themselves to further reduce the risk of injury on the job. 

Ensuring that employees have the information they need to make these choices is crucial. 

While much of what lies ahead remains uncertain, one thing is clear: Together, insurers, agents and brokers, and businesses — from risk and safety managers to employees — can join forces to help ensure a safer, healthier and happier workforce.

Timothy Lohrmann is practice leader, office ergonomics, for Chubb Global Risk Advisors, a unit of Chubb Ltd. He can be reached at Marcus Fichtel is principal consultant, industrial ergonomics practice lead, for Chubb Global Risk Advisors. He can be reached at