As the world grappled with COVID-19 in early 2020, the effect on the business community was swift. To limit the spread of the virus, many offices closed their doors and transitioned their employees to remote work.
According to a Pew Research Center survey, most workers who said their job responsibilities could be handled remotely never or rarely worked from home before the pandemic. Only one out of five survey respondents said they worked from home all or most of the time before COVID-19.
However, by the time of the December 2020 survey, 71% of those workers were doing their job from home most of the time or all the time. And most of them admitted that they would want to keep working from home after the pandemic.
From an employer’s perspective, the shift to remote work as a new normal has been challenging in many ways. One of the main concerns involves the safety of the home environment and workers’ compensation insurance. In this article, we will examine workers’ compensation (WC) for the remote worker and offer ways you can help your staff work more safely at home both now and in the future.
Does Workers’ Comp Cover Remote Workers?
Yes, remote and telecommuting workers typically are covered under WC policies if the injury or illness occurs while an employee is completing a work task during work hours.
In most cases, the remote worker has the burden of proof, meaning that they must be able to demonstrate that they were acting in the interest of their employer at the time they got sick or injured. However, the courts have found that, even though the employer does not have control over an employee’s home environment, that lack is not a reason to deny claims.
Therefore, employers are responsible for providing the same safe work environment for both their on-site workers and remote workers.
What Are the Most Common Work-from-Home Injuries?
The challenge comes from the fact that your employees’ home environment does not have the same safety standards you have put in place at your workplace. For example, they are at greater risk of slipping on water spilled from a dog bowl, tripping over their child’s toys, or falling down the stairs.
The two most frequent categories of injuries that claims examiners see with work from home injuries are cumulative injuries (usually resulting from poor ergonomics) and slips, trips, and falls. Let’s look at these injuries more in depth, including prevention measures.
The term “cumulative injuries” refers to damage and pain caused by repetitive movement and overuse. For the telecommuter, many of these injuries, which include painful conditions affecting muscles, tendons, and nerves, result from poor ergonomics at the workstation. Carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, bursitis, and back pain are some of the most common cumulative injuries.
An ergonomic workstation helps you sit comfortably at a computer screen. Your neck isn’t bent back, your arms aren’t extended beyond your side or lifted, your wrists and hands aren’t turned sideways or upward, your spine isn’t twisted, and your lower back is supported.
Here is our checklist to use to help your employees prevent cumulative workstation injuries:
|Top 6 Temporary Ergonomic Techniques|
|Use a separate keyboard and mouse. Arrange the workstation so that your elbows hang directly beneath your shoulders without shrugging, having them held or pushed away from your sides, or having to hold them forward. Aim to have your wrists in a neutral, comfortable position that does not require you to flex or extend them.|
|Elevate the monitor. Raise your computer monitor to eye level.|
|Adjust chair and table. If you do not have an adjustable desk chair, use folded towels or pillows to raise the seat and support your upper and lower back. Your hips and knees should be at about 90 degrees, with your feet firmly on the floor. (Place a box or large book under your feet if necessary.)|
|Prevent monitor glare. Adjust blinds and curtains to prevent glare or bright backlighting around your computer screen.|
|Take frequent breaks. Stand up when you can during calls and try to get up and move around every 30 minutes.|
|Use a headset. Using a headset when on calls will help keep your hands free and help reduce back pain and muscle fatigue.|
Slips, Trips, and Falls While Working from Home
Slips, trips, and falls are some of the most frequently reported accidents in the US, according to the National Safety Council.
Slips are when you lose your footing and balance. Trips occur when you lose your balance because part of your body hits a fixed object. Both occurrences can cause a fall. Falls also can happen when a means of support, such as a railing, fails or is missing.
Most workplaces have a specific plan to address slip, trip, and fall hazards, but when you transfer work activities to the home, the risk of these injuries can increase. While we are working at home, we may not be aware of potential hazards, such as toys, spills, or phone charger cords.
|Here are some tips for preventing slips, trips, and falls at home|
|Slips. Always wear proper footwear inside the home. Socks can be slippery. Promptly clean up spills and any mud or water tracked into the house by people or pets.|
|Trips. Keep your home clear of clutter. Make sure your home is well-lit and that all cords are safely secured and out of the way. Pay attention to where you are walking when you are on the phone.|
|Falls. Always use a handrail when taking the stairs. Make sure the stairway is well-lit and avoid carrying too much up or down the stairs.|
It is a good idea to encourage your employees always to be aware of their surroundings. Remind them that complacency can lead to injuries that could have been avoided.
How Should an Employer Handle a Work-from-Home Injury?
Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to prevent all workplace injuries, and this is especially true for employees who work from home. Therefore, employers need to understand what injuries may be considered work-related and develop best practices to prepare supervisors or Human Resources. That way, injuries can be addressed as they occur and reported to the insurance carrier, if necessary.
Coming and Going Rule and Workers’ Comp
When there is a physical separation of work and home, compensability is straightforward with the Going and Coming Rule. This principle denies WC benefits to an employee who is injured while commuting to or from work since the employee is not “rendering any service to the employer” during a typical commute. However, this rule is less applicable when the home functions as a secondary job site.
Let’s look at two remote work examples when Workers’ Comp benefits are likely to apply.
Employee’s Home as a Secondary Job Site
If an employee is required to work at both the employer’s premise and at home, the employee’s home is considered a secondary job site. The courts have found that traveling between the two locations are within the course and scope of employment and therefore, the Coming and Going Rule does not apply. Since many employees are now required to work from home due to the pandemic, the employee’s home becomes a secondary job site. So, for example, if a teleworker drives from their home to pick up materials or go to a workplace meeting and gets into a car accident, the injuries would likely be compensable since it is arguably within the course and scope of employment.
Personal Comfort Doctrine
Another claim might occur when an employee is injured while getting coffee or going to the bathroom at home. Under the personal comfort doctrine, an injury is compensable if the employee was engaging in activities necessary for their personal comfort or welfare and part of “normal working conditions.”
This personal comfort doctrine applies to employees who work from home, meaning that applicable activities can range from eating lunch, drinking water or coffee, going to the bathroom, and even taking a break for a smoke.
There is a myriad of ways that an employee can get injured at home. What if an employee trips over a dog on their way to grab work material from a printer, trips on their child’s toys at home, or falls off a chair? How can an employer correctly assess if the employee’s activity was in the scope or course of employment or whether it was strictly personal? It makes it even more complicated when there are no witnesses to corroborate the employee’s statements.
Fortunately, as an employer, you do not have to make these decisions, nor should you. Your WC carrier should make the assessment in collaboration with the defense counsel after their investigation is completed.
Your responsibility is to take the first step by reporting an at-home injury claim. Take a detailed written statement from the employee to understand what the employee was doing at the time of the injury and when and where it happened.
Ask your employee to take photos of the injury (cuts, bruises, swelling, etc.) and the injury site when possible (broken chair, dangling cord, etc.). The more information you can gather for the carrier, the easier it will be to assess compensability.
It can be challenging to assess if a home injury is genuinely work-related, so if you have any doubts about reporting a claim, we encourage you to contact your claims representative or consultant.
As more people get vaccinated, we are all eager to see the pandemic in the rear-view mirror. However, many employers will continue to offer remote work options to their employees in our post-COVID world. Therefore, employers should continue to foster continued awareness of working safely at home.
Your insurance carrier may have safety materials such as training webinars, blog posts, and online remote workstation ergonomic evaluations that you can use as part of your safety emphasis.
If an employee suffers an injury while working from home and you have questions or concerns, please contact your Woodruff Sawyer Account Executive or WC Consultant to discuss next steps. For preventative measures, we can refer you to an Ergonomist or Loss Control department at your insurance carrier.
Experts from Woodruff Sawyer, Littler, and Llarena, Murdock, Lopez & Azizad will do a review of California’s recently passed AB 685 and SB 1159, both of which place mandatory COVID-19 reporting requirements on the employer.
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