The risks of working at home

Employers make note: workers’ comp laws apply to employees at home

Even though employees are permitted to work at home, they are still protected by employment laws — the home office is still considered to be within the “office environment.” Laws pertaining to discrimination and harassment protect employees even while they are at home.

Although these employees work remotely, employers must find ways to properly supervise employees working from home and integrate them into
the company to prevent claims of unlawful conduct and hostile work environment.

There are other risks for employers that allow work from home, however. Employers also need to be mindful that workers’ compensation laws apply to employees while working in their home offices. So if an employee trips over her dog while working in her home office (a real claim), the employee may be entitled to workers’ compensation benefits. If the chair in the home office is unsound ergonomically, the employee may file a workers’ comp claim. Employers can take steps to try to mitigate the risks of workers’ compensation claims arising from affording employees the ability to work from home. It is advisable to address these issues through written policies.

First, employers must learn as many details as possible about the home office environment. If feasible, employers should send a representative of the company to inspect it to make sure it is sufficiently safe and suitable for the employee to work. Trip-and-fall hazards, lighting conditions, ergonomics and other factors should be addressed.

Once the physical setting is brought into compliance, photographs should be taken to memorialize the condition that was approved by the employer. If it is not feasible for an employer to send a representative to the home to inspect it, the employer can instruct the employee to transmit videos of the location or utilize a web-based video service to view the space. However the inspection occurs, it is important to photograph the final, approved setup.

The employer’s written policies should allow for periodic inspections of the location, either in person or by video, to ensure that the space remains compliant. Employees should be required to keep the home office in essentially the same condition as when it was approved and employees should also be required to notify the employer when changes are made to the home office. If a new piece of furniture is moved into the home office, for example, another review of the space should occur.

Once the home office is approved, it should be kept as separate as possible from the rest of the home. In other words, allowing the employees’ children to play with toys in the home office increases the risk of a fall when the employee inevitably steps on the plastic building block that was left on the floor. The office environment needs to have defined boundaries so that the employer’s responsibility to ensure a safe working environment is limited to just that space and no other.

Employers should also recognize that employees may leave their home office environment to conduct company business, which also implicates workers compensation laws.

A 2002 Montana case involved an employee who worked mainly from home but who left the home to travel three miles to pick up mail at the post office. The employee was injured while traveling to pick up the mail, and the court held that the injuries were covered by the workers’ compensation scheme.

Companies therefore need to adopt and enforce policies aimed at reducing the risk of injury while on the road, and these policies must apply to employees working from home.

Allowing employees to work from home can be beneficial to the employee and the employer. Nevertheless, employers should consider the employees’ home office to be an extension of the actual corporate office. As such, special attention should be paid to the physical aspects of the home office and policies should be enforced to provide a safe home working environment. With a little diligence, employers can mitigate the workers compensation risk attendant to a remote workforce.

Attorney James P. Harris is a shareholder in the law firm of Sheehan Phinney.

Categories: Legal

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