Workers’ compensation insurance covers injuries that occur in the course of employment. That includes work-related activities by an employee during work hours.
You are likely accustomed to considering workers’ compensation when employees are in your office. Your agency prioritizes worker safety by installing safe and sturdy office equipment or designing ergonomic workstations. But you may believe you are off the hook if you send employees home to work remotely.
Unfortunately, that is not the case.
Remote employee workers’ comp claims are likely to occur even if they are at home. Fortunately, you can mitigate the risk by understanding your potential liability and taking steps to protect your agency.
Their Home but…Your Liability
It is unsettling to think that you could be liable for what happens at your employees’ home offices. But workers’ compensation laws in all states have broad definitions of what constitutes an injury during work hours. Here is how workers’ compensation laws may work in remote work situations.
Establishing Workers’ Compensation Liability
Remote workers may establish a successful workers’ compensation claim if:
- They performed work for your agency’s benefit while working from home; and
- The employee works a regular schedule and establishes a pattern of performing remote work so that their home gains workplace status.
Situations that apply to your office may not necessarily apply to your employee’s home. The resulting injury is likely compensable if your worker trips and falls while walking to the break room. Your office may have loose carpet, exposed cords, or other workplace hazards. You are responsible for maintaining a safe workplace and allowing those dangers leaves you liable for any resulting injuries.
But if an employee trips and injures themselves at home, it is unlikely you are liable for workers’ compensation. A recent case arose when a telecommuter tripped over her dog while getting coffee from her kitchen. The court ruled that getting coffee was not within her employment duties, so the employee did not sustain work-related injuries. She could not receive workers’ compensation benefits.
However, keep in mind that the lower court, in that decision, reasoned that the telecommuter “imported” her office environment to the home. So in their view, she should receive workers’ compensation benefits.
Bottom line–your state may have different interpretations of what constitutes an on-the-job injury. This legal area is relatively new and hard to predict. So at the very least, keep your workers’ compensation coverage current.
Possible Remote Work Injuries
The good news is that remote work is available for a limited field of employees. These workers are less likely to face injuries, which applies to office and remote situations. But it doesn’t mean the risk is completely gone.
Clerical, administrative, and professional workers spend most of their time sedentary and using computers. You may not have the back injuries common in the trades, but you still have injury risks, including:
- Slip and fall: The most common accident type among office and clerical workers is slipping and falling. These accidents result from office hazards, like loose carpet or wet breakroom floors. While current cases show these claims may not translate to the work-from-home environment, be aware that some courts may believe differently (see example above.)
- Car accidents: You are responsible for remote workers if you send them on errands. Telecommuters may leave home to file papers, drop off mail, visit clients, or perform other work-related tasks. Their personal car insurance will consider these business trips and not cover damages from accidents. Telecommuters can also file a workers’ compensation claim for accident injuries if their errand was for your agency’s benefit.
- Repetitive stress injuries: Tendonitis, carpal tunnel, and other repetitive stress injuries are more likely in remote work situations. Remote workers may not design ergonomic workspaces at home or try working at their kitchen or dining room table for 40 hours a week. Eventually, these conditions cause disabling pain and workers’ compensation claims.
Preventing Workers’ Compensation Claims
Fortunately, you can prevent remote workers from filing workers’ compensation claims by laying out terms for remote work. In these cases, a little supervision and guidance allow a better understanding of expectations regarding safety and productivity.
Start with open communication. Let all employees, including your telecommuters, know you can provide them with what they need to finish their work. If an office worker needed a monitor riser to prevent neck pain and see their work better, you would provide it. Let remote employees know the same goes for them.
Also, consider educating your employees on repetitive stress injuries and symptoms. These conditions are easier to treat if caught early, and symptoms often resolve once you make workstation adjustments. Let them know these physical complaints are not a nuisance, and you will help them if they encounter symptoms.
Take an active role in monitoring work-from-home spaces. You can do this without being intrusive, but ensure employees know it is for their safety–not because you mistrust them and want to snoop.
One way to monitor is to ask for photos of employees’ work-at-home spaces. You want to see that it is a safe, ergonomic environment free from distractions. When you view these photos, keep in mind each worker’s situation. While a home office in the living room won’t work for someone with three small children at home, a single employee who lives alone should have no problem with that arrangement.
Allow workers to take home ergonomic equipment from their on-site office, especially if they work remotely for the long term. If you have extra gear to help someone’s at-home workspace, let them borrow it as long as they work remotely.
However, also be aware that working from home isn’t for everyone. Small homes, distractions, or equipment deficiencies often make remote work impossible. Before you make any promises to workers, set out your expectations for home offices first, and then see if your employee’s home space meets them.
Set Work Hours
Many employees may wish to work when they feel like it, but that makes remote work situations murky when workers’ compensation issues arise. Rather than keep schedules open-ended, set work hours. Since “on the clock” is often a standard in workers’ compensation claims, confirmed work schedules help determine this element better.
Draft a Telecommuting Policy
You should have all these expectations in writing in a telecommuting policy. This agreement should include:
- Hours, including break and meal times
- Employees’ job duties while at home
- Clock in, clock out, and check-in processes
- Guidelines for the home office, e.g., equipment, distraction management, furniture, lighting, safety, etc.
- Equipment you are willing to provide
Once you draft the policy, you and the remote worker should sign it. Keep the signed policy in your records in case any issues arise later.
Employees can’t keep themselves injury-free if they do not learn proper ergonomics. Hire a consultant to run a training on workstation layout, ergonomics, and other safety measures. While having you visit an employee’s home may seem intrusive, your workers may be open to a consultant visiting and helping them set up their space. See how your workers feel about it, and then visit our site to find a consultant.
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