Neglecting Ergonomics Safety for Teleworkers Can Be Costly

By Roy Maurer Jul 20, 2012

Thanks to advances in information technology, telework has grown steadily over the past several years. This type of flexible arrangement—which authorizes employees to perform work away from their regular place of employment, most often from their homes—has become common for office workers. The latest estimates place the U.S. telework population at nearly 3 million people.

But both employers and employees often overlook workplace safety practices, including the use of proper ergonomics, during telework arrangements, possibly increasing the risk of injury or health problems to employees.

There are many benefits to telework, such as improved recruitment, productivity and work/life balance. Telework also can reduce overhead and accommodation costs, as well as stress levels and commute time. But risks from not paying attention to ergonomics are very real.

The Telework Learning Center in Fairfax, Va., collected data on the health of teleworkers from 2003 to 2006 and found ergonomics problems to be a primary concern. Among teleworkers who participated in the study, 38 percent reported work-related discomfort, soreness or pain, most commonly in the back, wrists, neck and shoulders. Those who teleworked more days per week were more likely to experience such pain.

Considering telecommuting is a relatively new option for employees, the workers’ compensation implications are still crystallizing.

While an employer cannot completely shield itself from workers’ compensation liability, there are steps an employer can take to lessen its susceptibility.

“Employers certainly, from the perspective of workers’ compensation exposure, are doing things to minimize and reduce the frequency and cost of workers’ compensation cases,” said Steve Thompson, president of Aspen Risk Management Group and ERGOhealthy, an ergonomics consulting company and international provider of ergonomics analytics, assessments, training and coaching.

“A worker working from home who complains of wrist pain or neck or shoulder pain because of working at a computer is no different than a worker in an office,” Thompson told SHRM Online.

According to the most recent Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety Index, published March 2012, musculoskeletal injuries account for about 40 percent of all workplace injuries.

“That’s not necessarily just office workers, but it’s definitely an ergonomics issue,” Thompson said. In most states, an employer is going to be liable for an employee working from home or remotely, he said. “And today with the advent of smart phones and tablets and other methods of communication, it’s more difficult to draw that distinctive line between when a person is working or not. Work is becoming a 24/7 exposure. Employers and HR have to come up with ways to manage this,” he added.

Safety Concerns

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) does not conduct home office inspections, nor does the agency require employers to do so. OSHA does, however, hold employers liable for hazards caused by equipment, materials or work processes provided or required by the employer. Employers that are required by law to record work-related injuries and illnesses must maintain such a record for teleworkers as well.

Because the majority of teleworkers predominantly are engaged in office work, safety concerns they face often include standard office hazards: ergonomics problems; fires; slips, trips and falls; and air quality. However, because these workplaces also are personal homes, workers may become lax about mitigating these hazards.

Best Practices

Here are some helpful best practices to keep in mind if you have employees working from home:

Determine if you have the right employee. Employers should carefully select the employees who will telecommute, Thompson said. An employer should choose employees who are trustworthy and loyal to the company for telecommuting positions.

“That may sound soft, but by choosing employees who have demonstrated their loyalty to the company in the past, the employer is less likely to incur fraudulent workers’ compensation claims,” Thompson said.

Fixed work hours and clear work assignments. This guideline is important for purposes of determining whether the accident occurred in the course of employment. Without set hours, an employee may fraudulently claim any accident at home under the employer’s workers’ compensation policy. Setting specific hours and lunch breaks for telecommuters will lessen the risk of fraudulent claims. “You can’t just say you’re going to work willy-nilly from home. The work hours and specific work assignments should be very clear,” he said.

Injury prevention training. Experts recommend that safety training be a critical component of any telework policy. In the Telework Learning Center study, after receiving safety training, 66 percent of teleworkers made changes to their home office or work habits, and many reported feeling less work-related discomfort as a result. Yet despite this apparent need for training, 82 percent of study participants reported that they had received no initial teleworker safety training from their employer.

“Companies may include webinar training on effective ergonomics, or they may include a website for employees to download material on how to prevent injuries,” Thompson said.

Home-office inspection. Some companies offer home-inspection services, Thompson said. These can be done on site or remotely. On-site inspections are rare because of the privacy issues involved, so employers will direct teleworkers to a remote self-evaluation process online. Because most telecommuters work from their computer, carpal tunnel syndrome may be a common claim. By ensuring the computer work station is ergonomically correct, the employer will lessen the risk of its employees developing carpal tunnel syndrome.

Medical provider network. If permitted by state law, each telecommuter should be provided with a copy of the employer’s medical provider network (MPN). The employer should explain to the employee that if an accident does occur, the employee should seek treatment with a medical provider listed on the network.

The MPNs are used to help manage workers’ compensation costs. The network is a panel of doctors who have been specifically chosen for their expertise. The challenge with MPNs however, is in the remote and multiple locations of teleworkers.

Early reporting procedure. The employer should implement mandatory early reporting. Company policy should be that the telecommuter advises his or her employer of the injury as soon as reasonably possible. By doing this, the employer will not only ensure that the telecommuter gets the medical care needed, but mandatory early reporting may discourage employees from filing fraudulent claims.

“The longer an employee waits to report the injury, the chances are that the injury will be more costly and an attorney becomes involved,” Thompson said. “With remote workers, the chances of delays with reporting injuries start to manifest simply because of the remote process. So having a very clear reporting process is critical,” he said.

Managers should review a safety checklist with teleworkers to ensure compliance and should immediately investigate any reports of accidents or injuries on the job, Thompson concluded.

Roy Maurer is a staff writer for SHRM Online.

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