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Employers can reduce safety risks by creating effective policies and reporting systems
Technology has made telecommuting easier to manage, but remote work arrangements present unique safety challenges—and employers must ensure they are complying with workplace rules even for employees who don't work onsite.
Keeping remote employees safe can be challenging, mainly because they are not in a controlled workplace environment, said Chris Holbert, CEO of SecuraTrac, a company in Hermosa Beach, Calif., that develops and sells mobile health and safety solutions. He noted that remote workers usually don't have a designated office with smoke detectors, ergonomic workspaces and security protocols.
"Workplace safety for at-home workers is a somewhat amorphous topic, as it's sometimes unclear what regulatory framework applies," said Alec Beck, an attorney with FordHarrison in Minneapolis.
For example, he said, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has stated that it will not conduct at-home workplace inspections and that it will generally not hold employers liable for at-home safety issues.
"On the other hand, OSHA continues to maintain that employers are responsible for safe working conditions regardless of location," Beck said. "The obvious tension between these two statements illustrates the difficulty of creating policies and procedures in this area."
Employers can try to manage and mitigate the safety risks mobile workers face by creating effective safety reporting systems and establishing mandatory safety check-ins at predetermined intervals, Holbert said.
"Whether this be after every job, site visit or at the end of each day, a verbal or digital check-in and safety report—even if the report [indicates] no incidents—can help create a history to predict and avoid future events," he added.
Workplace injuries are a constant worry for employers, and there is no magic solution to the problem, Beck said, adding that state workers' compensation laws generally will cover accidents that occur in the home while an employee is working.
He noted, however, that it may be difficult for employers to enforce workplace conduct laws with remote employees.
[SHRM members-only HR Q&A: Are telecommuters covered under workers' compensation?]
As an example, he said an employee could be intoxicated during work hours, fall while plugging in a work computer and sustain an injury, and still have a workers' compensation claim because the employer would have to somehow prove misconduct to avoid liability.
"Of course, since the employer wasn't there, and presumably there's no video or other evidence of the injury, it's unlikely the employer could prove the misconduct," he said.
Workers who travel on behalf of the business also present unique challenges because they are covered by workers' compensation when they are sent to another location for business purposes.
To claim workers' compensation benefits, employees have to show that they were acting in the interest of the employer at the time the injury occurred—but when the worker's activities aren't supervised, it may be difficult for an employer to know when an employee is actually acting on its behalf, Beck said.
Another challenge for employers with remote workers is communicating when an injury or medical emergency has occurred.
Holbert said one solution is for employers to implement technologies that automatically track and report on a mobile worker's location and physical safety.
"There are wearable technologies available that can locate employees on demand and that also function as emergency panic buttons," he explained. "If an accident or emergency situation occurs, the employee can press the button and immediately be connected with responders who can provide assistance."
Holbert said a two-way microphone allows for communication, and if for any reason the employee is unconscious, the device can detect a fall and place an automatic call for emergency help.
Tips for Employers
Beck said the following safety procedures are generally accepted in the risk-management field as prudent for employers to follow if they offer at-home work arrangements:
"Although it's impossible to completely avoid the unique risks posed by at-home workers, following these steps will reduce the possibility of claims and liability," Beck said.
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