The number of individuals who work from home has increased by 140% since 2005, as 4.3 million people in the US today work from home at least half the time, according to SmallBizGenius’s 2020 round-up of remote work statistics. However, this increased popularity in working from the comfort of one’s home brings unique workers’ compensation-related issues to the forefront.
“The challenges that we see are many, and they start with simple ergonomics. It’s difficult for an employer to ensure that the ergonomics of the space that the employee is working from when they’re working from home are going to help versus hurt,” said Matt Zender, AmTrust Financial Services’ senior vice president of workers’ compensation strategy. “Many times, the employer is hesitant or simply unable to look at the workspace that the employee is working in.”
The tools that an employee might use to work from home, and do so safely, have likely not been vetted by the employer. For example, an ergonomic chair or a desk that has a built-in riser would over time help minimize the potential effects of sitting at a desk for eight hours, but those implements are usually left to the employee. This is a notable concern seeing as one of the exposures arising from work from home situations is a cumulative trauma injury that stems from sitting in an uncomfortable workspace over the course of several months, such as back pain or carpal tunnel.
“Further compounding that is the fact that the workspace itself is often commingled and it may not be fully dedicated to what the worker is doing,” explained Zender. “They may be sharing that space with their 12-year-old’s science project, or their partner’s other hobbies or work, especially if they’re only working from home a couple of days a week. This commingling can lead to some awkward workspaces that can lead to injuries over time.”
There is also an issue in terms of the hours that are worked by employees who have turned their homes into offices. AmTrust sees many instances where employees who work from home put in more hours and have a harder time adhering to a set schedule. In turn, they can find themselves getting more tired, which can lead to them not working as safely.
On the flipside, one benefit of working from home when it comes to workers’ comp is the familiarity of the employees with their environments. The injuries tend to be less serious, primarily because people subconsciously remember that they, for example, left their slippers by the stairs so they can avoid tripping on them. In contrast, if an employee is visiting a workplace for the first time, there tend to be a lot more trips and falls because people don’t realize that something might be in their way.
Another upside of working from home is that the nature of work lends itself to less severe claims. While many industries support working from home, the activities completed by employees in this environment tend to be clerical, which means they also tend to be less hazardous.
Taking into account the pros and cons of allowing employees to work from home, companies can do a few things to mitigate the risks of their staff getting hurt while on the clock.
“The first thing I would encourage a business to do is create a protocol for allowing an individual to work from home. It’s really simple for a business to say, ‘Sure, [work from home] every Tuesday. I understand you’ve got responsibilities to maybe pick somebody up and/or you’re overseeing a father or mother and need to help,’” said Zender. “But often, they don’t take any time or effort to make sure that the employee is properly set up to work from home.”
Through discussions with an employee about their workspace, an employer could learn that the worker is just taking up a corner on a kitchen table, where they’re surrounded by distractions, such as people coming into the kitchen to cook. Encouraging the employee to find a dedicated workspace where they don’t have to keep one eye out on their children, for example, will ensure that they minimize distractions, which means a more efficient, less distracted and safer employee.
Employers also need to be particularly sensitive to the fact that claims stemming from work from home injuries are difficult to disprove. Once a business allows somebody to work from home and they get injured, it’s hard to fight that if they have doubts. While most claims are legitimate, implementing risk mitigation strategies for those employees will help minimize the potential of claims in the first place.
“It’s important to have good, open communication with those workers. When they do come into the office, you want to make sure you’re continuing to follow up with them and ask how the set-up is working and if there’s anything that the business can do to help within reason,” said Zender. “If they start to report to you, ‘Hey, my wrists are starting to hurt,’ there are steps that a business can take early on that can help a large claim stay a small claim.”