Workers Unprepared for Working from Home Raise Worker’s Comp Issues

Benefits Human Resources

A special study conducted by Global Workplace analytics found that there has been a major and steady upward trend in the number of people working remotely in the U.S.  From 2016-2017, remote work grew 7.9%.  Over the last five years remote work increased by 44%, over the last 12 years, by 159%. The emergence of sophisticated technology — videoconferencing, file-sharing and secure data-access — empowers those employees who work from home or other remote locations. By meeting employer and employee requirements for secure and productive remote work, such technologies will continue to drive this uptrend.

Today, over 5 million people work remotely in the U.S. and the option to do so – to vary their workplace and work environment – is now a key factor for many job seekers.  A 2019 State of Remote Work report found that remote workers say they are more likely to stay in their current job for next 5 years – 13% more than onsite workers.  Eighty percent of remote workers describe reduced job stress and take fewer sick days. Two thirds of managers who offer telecommuting flexibility report that employees who work from home are overall more productive. A recent Stanford University study found that employers who offered work from home options experienced employee turnover rates falling by over 50%.  And, remote work continues to disturb commercial real estate markets s as companies who offer telecommuting flexibility seek to reduce the amount of space they lease per worker.

The Coronavirus has accelerated the pace of this change in how and where work is done by sending of millions of employees home to work while they avoid  this highly contagious virus.  Many companies and workers who may have resisted this growing trend are now taking a hard look at telecommuting flexibility and considering investing more capital in emerging technology and less in brick and mortar.  However, most of these employees have suddenly found themselves working from home without the opportunity to plan and design an ergonomic workplace. They are jerry-rigging make-shift workspaces in their homes., often working without proper desks, chairs, computer monitors, keyboards or lighting.  Some may be commandeering their family’s kitchen tables, sitting in hard-back dining room chairs or simply working from couches or beds with inadequate support and lighting. This lack of a proper workstation to minimize potential ergonomic injuries to back, neck and shoulders, as well as safety hazards as computer and network wires trailing across a kitchen, living- or bedroom floor, is causing an increase in job-related injuries and worker’s compensation claims.

An April Society of Human Resource Management article shared tips from ergonomics experts on how to minimize the potential injuries while working from home. Employees working from home should follow these expert’s suggestions in setting up home workstation:

  • Find a dedicated work area; somewhere with good natural light is ideal.
  • Monitors and keyboards should be positioned appropriately; the top of the screen should be positioned at eye-level or just below eye-level.
  • Hands, wrists, and forearms should rest in a straight line, roughly parallel to the floor.
  • Shoulders should be relaxed with arms hanging normally and elbows kept close to the body.
  • The head should be facing forward and balanced level on the neck.
  • The back should be straight and vertical or leaning back slightly, with the lumbar region, or lower back, well supported.
  • Hips should be at angle of 90 degrees, with thighs approximately parallel to the floor, knees at approximately the same height as the hips and feet resting on the floor or supported by a footrest.

Christine M. Sullivan, senior vice president and risk control service director at Sompo Global Risk Solutions in New York City, advises in the SHRM article that the “average kitchen table is too high to be ergonomically sound.”  Ms. Sullivan goes on, saying that “the worst offenders are people trying to work form their couch or bed” without the adequate support (as recommended above).  Karen Loesing, an ergonomic consultant and owner of The Ergonomic Expert in Agoura Hills, California, reminds workers to break up their time in front of their monitors and keyboards by stretching, walking, standing and moving around.  “If you are on a conference call,” for example, “stand up and move around a bit.”  Ms. Sullivan also advises that employees who work from home should try to eat lunch in the kitchen instead of at their desk.  Separate your “office” from your “break room.”

And finally, the U.S. Department of Labor strongly supports telecommuting and telework, stating that “family friendly, flexible and fair work arrangements, including telecommuting, can benefit individual employees and their families, employers, and society as a whole.”  The DOL further states:

“The purpose of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSH Act) is to “assure so far as possible every working man and woman in the Nation safe and healthful working conditions….” (Section 2(b)). The OSH Act applies to a private employer who has any employees doing work in a workplace in the United States. It requires these employers to provide employment and a place of employment that are free from recognized, serious hazards, and to comply with OSHA standards and regulations (Sections 4 and 5 of the OSH Act).

OSHA respects the privacy of the home and has never conducted inspections of home offices. While respecting the privacy of the home, it should be kept in mind that certain types of work at home can be dangerous/hazardous. Examples of such work from OSHA’s past inspections include:  assembly of electronics; casting lead head jigs for fishing lures; use of unguarded crimping machines; and handling adhesives without protective gloves.”

The DOL states that OSHA will not hold employers liable for employees’ home offices and does not expect employers to inspect the home offices of their employers.  However, employers are urged to talk to their worker’s compensation carriers about potential liabilities surrounding telecommuters. A recent SHRM paper states that “although a telecommuting employee must show that he or she was acting the interest of the employer at the time an injury occurred, courts have found that an employer’s lack of control over the conditions an employee’s home-based work is irrelevant.” Employers are still responsible for providing their employees a safe work environment.   The article urges employers to establish guidelines for a home office, such at those referenced above and, when appropriate and possible, to conduct periodic checks of employee home offices to assist the employee to identify and eliminate work area safety issues.

Workers Compensation laws vary state by state; Summit encourages employers who support telecommuting flexibility to work with their carriers to determine the best strategies to manage workers’ compensation risks for their telecommuters. As observed by Stacey Epstein, CEO of Zinc, “remote workers span multiple industries . . .  all who represent unique challenges when it comes to staying connected while on the job.” Employers who offer flexible work options must ensure that that their remote employees are engaged with their coworkers and working in a safe and healthy environment.

Gracen Johnsen

Senior Vice President- Human Resources Consulting