Authors: Alberto Ferreras Remesal; Alicia Piedrabuena Cuesta; Sonia Serna Arnau, Purificación Castelló Mercé, Raquel Marzo Roselló, Mercedes Sanchís Almenara
Instituto de Biomecánica de Valencia
Universitat Politècnica de València
Edificio 9C. Camino de Vera s/n
(46022) Valencia. Spain
Telework is a way of working that has increased considerably over the last few years. The growth of this option, especially as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, has meant that, in many cases, it is performed without adequate planning and correct consideration of the potential occupational risks that it may entail.
In order to take these aspects into account, a methodological proposal has been developed to assess teleworking from an ergonomic point of view, thus allowing a flexible assessment of the telework conditions, facilitating the identification of problems, a diagnosis of the situation at an individual and/or collective level, and the identification of recommendations for improvement.
Telework is defined as the use of information and communication technologies - such as smartphones, tablets, laptops and desktop computers – for the purposes of work outside the employer’s premises (ILO-Eurofund, 2017). The basis used to define telework is the continuous or consistent remote performance of work activities.The keys to defining a form of work as telework take the following key aspects into account:
- The performance of work outside the employer’s premises.This relocation can take place in different environments, although in most cases it will be the worker’s own home.
- Consistency over time: it is not a matter of carrying out one-off activities remotely, but rather a relevant part (or all) of the working day is spent outside the company’s premises.
- The need for specific equipment that allows work activities to be carried out under the same conditions as in on-site work. This equipment is organized through information and communication technologies (ICT) that make it possible to access data remotely and to maintain the necessary contact with colleagues and/or clients in an effective manner. This equipment need not be any different to what would normally be available in the office, but it is a necessary requirement when working remotely.
The number of workers choosing to work remotely on a part-time or full-time basis has been increasing over the years, with significant differences between countries.However, it was the COVID-19 pandemic that dramatically boosted the shift to teleworking. Although once the health emergency subsided, many companies changed back to on-site arrangements, the percentage of teleworkers has increased markedly and trends indicate that it is likely to continue to grow.
Telework is an option that entails numerous benefits for both the company and the worker: greater concentration on tasks, reduced travelling time, the possibility of reconciling work and personal life, cost savings, etc. However, it can also entail risks that need to be taken into account, such as isolation, loss of contact with colleagues, longer working hours and a lack of separation between work and private life.Another aspect to be considered is the prevention of occupational hazards, in particular those related to ergonomic aspects.
Although a wide variety of tasks can certainly be performed in a teleworking environment, the reality is that the vast majority are confined to the concept of “office work” or, more specifically, to “work with visual display terminals (VDTs)”.
In this sense, an ergonomic assessment could be carried out taking the same criteria used to assess any workstation with a VDT into account, and would include aspects such as the following:
- Equipment (screen, keyboard, mouse, etc.).
- Furniture (chair, table, storage).
- Environment (space, lighting, temperature, noise).
- Work organization.
There are specific methodologies that evaluate these aspects (Ergofi, ROSA, INSST Technical Guide, etc.).However, it is not possible to use them directly, as telework has a number of particularities that need to be taken into account:
- The incorporation of specific elements that are not usual in on-site work: portable electronic devices, specific furniture, environmental conditions, organizational and psychosocial aspects.
- The workspace is the private home, which presents legal problems for carrying out the risk assessment, as it is not possible for an assessment to be carried out by a technician or an accredited entity without the express consent of the worker.In other words, it may not be possible for an occupational health and safety technician to carry out an assessment of a telework job.
It is therefore necessary to establish alternatives that allow the legal obligation to carry out the assessment to be fulfilled, while at the same time guaranteeing the inviolability of the worker's home.During the COVID-19 pandemic, in Spain it was made possible for the assessment to be accomplished by means of a self-assessment carried out voluntarily by the worker themselves.However, this possibility was only contemplated on an exceptional basis and has been reversed by Royal Decree-Law 28/2020, which establishes that the assessment must be carried out by the company, although it may be the worker themselves who provides the necessary information.
Based on these requirements, the IBV has developed a methodological proposal for the ergonomic assessment of telework.The principles that guide this methodology take into account the conditions mentioned above:
- Including the analysis of elements and aspects common to office work (based on regulations and studies) and those specific to telework.
- It is based on the collection of information by the worker, but without being a self-assessment: the person provides the information which will then be analyzed by a computer application and validated by the prevention service.
Figure 1 - Ergo/IBV's module picture
The methodology is based on a data collection questionnaire. This questionnaire can be completed by the worker themselves at home or by technical staff or the prevention service. The questionnaire consists of various sections with information relating to the description of the telework job: identification, general data and specific data (chair, table, screen, computer, accessories, space, environment and organization). Based on the data collected, it is possible to identify those aspects that may pose risks, problems or possibilities for ergonomic improvement.
The contents of the questionnaire have been elaborated on the basis of a documentary review on ergonomic risk assessment in telework, in reference standards (ISO 9241, ISO 8995, ISO 7730, UNE-EN-29241.3 and EN-1335-2 series), technical documentation (NTP 602 and Technical Guide for the assessment and prevention of risks related to the use of visual display terminals (2021)) and in reference Spanish legislation (Law 10/2021 and Royal Decree 488/1997).
The complete procedure has been implemented in a computer application that has been integrated as a module within the ErgoIBV software. By means of this application it is possible:
- Carry out ergonomic assessments both individually and for several workstations that are grouped under the same analysis.
- Provide recommendations to help control the risks detected.
The information for each workstation can be entered manually into the application (in the event that the technician carries out the assessment) and/or imported from a web application (in the event that the workers fill in the questionnaires) and must subsequently be reviewed and validated by the technician or the Health and Safety service.
The contents of the assessment are structured in the following sections:
- LEVEL I - TELEWORK JOB DESCRIPTION
- Initial risk identification questions
- Level II filter and modulating questions
- LEVEL II - WORKING CONDITIONS (Questions filtered in Level I)
- Work table
- Work chair
- Accessories / Communication elements
- Workspace / layout
- Environment (environmental conditions)
- Work organization
Figure 2 - Screen of the Level II questionnaire for ergonomic assessment of telework.
Once the Level II questionnaire has been completed, it is possible to access the results of the assessment.Analysis of the data collected allows the following aspects to be identified:
- Description of the detected problem
- Type of problem.Classification of the detected problem according to its importance:
- RISK. Detected problems that pose an ergonomic risk and need to be solved.
- WARNING. Potential ergonomic problems.It is recommended to check if they are a problem and to intervene if necessary.
- IMPROVABLE. Aspects that do not pose an ergonomic risk but can be improved.
- DATA MISSING. Aspects that the worker has not been able to answer. A specific detailed study is required to complete the assessment.
- Improvement recommendations for each of the problems detected.
Figure 3 - Results screen of the ergonomic assessment of telework.
- Telework is a work modality that has been increasing significantly in recent times, and which presents important challenges in terms of organization, labor rights and ensuring good working conditions.
- Ergonomic risks in telework involve a series of specific situations derived from both the nature of the work and the conditions in which it is carried out.
- To address these aspects, the IBV has developed an ergonomic assessment methodology that takes into account the main potential risks and is adapted to the specific characteristics of telework.
- INSHT (2021) Technical guide for the assessment and prevention of risks related to the use of display screen equipment - Year 2021. Spain's National Institute for Safety and Health at Work.
- ISO 8995-1:2002 - Lighting of work places — Part 1: Indoor
- Latonda, L. (2001). ERGOFI/IBV system: supporting information, training and assessment of occupational risks in office work. Revista de Biomecánica, (30), 27-31.
- Law 10/2021 of 9 July on remote work.
- Messenger, J., Vargas, O., Gschwind, L., Boehmer, S., Vermeylen, G., & Wilkens, M. (2017).Working anytime, anywhere: The effects on the world of work. International Labour Organization and the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofund).
- Royal Decree 488/1997 of 14 April on minimum health and safety requirements for work with display screen equipment.
- Sonne, M., Villalta, D. L., & Andrews, D. M. (2012).Development and evaluation of an office ergonomic risk checklist: ROSA–Rapid office strain assessment. Applied ergonomics, 43(1), 98-108.
- UNE-EN 1335-2:2019 - Office furniture. Office chair. Part 2: Safety Requirements.
- UNE-EN 29241-3/A1:2001 Ergonomic requirements for office work with visual display terminals (VDTs).
- UNE EN ISO 7730:2006 Ergonomics of the thermal environment
- UNE-EN ISO 9241 (Series) (2022) - Ergonomics of human-system interaction
- Vega, M. F., & Cuixart, C. N. (2001).NTP 602: The ergonomic design of the workstation with display screens: the workstation.
 Messenger, J., Vargas, O., Gschwind, L., Boehmer, S., Vermeylen, G., & Wilkens, M. (2017). Working anytime, anywhere: The effects on the world of work. International Labour Organization and the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofund).