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Health and Safety Issues When Employees are Working from Home

Health and Safety Issues When Employees are Working from Home

Where does the employer’s liability end?

As an employer, protecting employees from health and safety risks is an everyday challenge. When you have employees working from home, risk management becomes even more complex. But where do your responsibilities lie when an employee's office is also their home?

This article explains your role as an employer in remote employees' health and safety.

Note: In extenuating circumstances, such as a global pandemic, these best practices may not be possible. However, it's important to consider them and do what you can when your employees are working remotely.

Health and safety issues put your employees and company at risk.

Case management software can help you manage health and safety incidents and report on results for effective risk management and prevention. Learn how in our free eBook.

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Poor Ergonomics

As an employer, you probably supply your in-office workers with high-quality ergonomic furniture and supplies. But what about employees working from home?

Without proper ergonomics, remote employees are at risk of developing health problems over time. For example, hand, wrist and arm problems are common in office workers. Without a wrist rest, mouse or correctly adjusted work station, they are even more at risk of carpal tunnel, tendonitis, sprains and strains.

Employees have to sit at their work station for eight hours, so ergonomics are essential. However, remote workers may not have a desk or chair suitable for full-time work. An unsupportive chair may cause poor blood circulation and joint and muscle problems in the hips, knees or back.

If an employee's desk or work table is too low or high for them, they may suffer from neck and shoulder pain, tension or weakness. After working in these conditions too long, the employee may develop a musculoskeletal disorder.

What are Employers Responsible For?

Employers are responsible for providing a safe working environment for all employees, whether they work in the office or remotely. Though OSHA states that it doesn't hold employers liable for accidents in home work environments, it "continues to maintain that employers are responsible for safe working conditions regardless of location," says attorney Alex Beck.

To protect both your company and employees, take more precautions rather than less. Reduce risk of health issues caused by poor ergonomics by:

  • Reimbursing remote employees when they purchase ergonomic items for work
  • Providing remote employees with the same ergonomic furniture and supplies available at the office when they start the job/start working from home
  • Conducting ergonomic assessments on all remote employees and providing them with their recommended items

RELATED: Employees Working Remotely? Beware of These 6 HR Issues

Environment-Caused Injuries and Illnesses

A remote employee's work environment consists of more than just their desk. If it's not safe, the area they work in can lead to injury or illness.

For instance, working in low lighting can cause eye strain or even blindness. Poor ventilation or air quality can cause headaches, lung infections and sinus problems. A work environment that's too loud might be distracting and reduce the employee's productivity, but could also lead to hearing loss.

While many office workers sit at a desk for the majority of their day, remote employees are at even more at risk of sitting-related complications. In-office workers move around by commuting, visiting coworkers around the office and attending meetings in conference rooms.

However, employees working remotely often just stick to their work station. Sitting for hours without moving can lead to a wide range of health problems including obesity, cardiovascular disease, muscle weakness, diabetes, cancer and circulatory problems.

Remote employees might also sustain injuries caused by an unsuitable work environment. This could include anything from tripping over power cords to a computer falling on their foot.

What are Employers Responsible For?

As mentioned above, employers should provide a safe working environment for all employees. However, this only applies to their work area, tasks and time.

Worker's compensation laws vary by state but generally consider three factors for remote employees. First, did the injury occur during work hours and in the designated work area? Next, was the employee performing a work-related task when the injury occurred? Finally, does the employer have a remote work safety policy?

To avoid confusion (and possible legal ramifications), write a remote work health and safety policy that answers the following questions:

  • Will a company representative go to remote employees' homes to help them set up their work station?
  • To conduct safety assessments, will an employee representative go to the homes or will you use employee photos or checklists?
  • Are the bathroom and kitchen considered part of the workplace?
  • How will you investigate accidents and incidents?
  • What are the procedures for reporting an accident or incident for remote employees (i.e. time limit, to whom, how)?

In addition, ensure remote employees work in a safe environment by requiring that:

  • The employee's workspace is large enough for their equipment and that all furniture is stable
  • Power cords are tucked away and the workspace is clear of clutter
  • The workspace is well-lit and ventilated properly
  • Carpets are secured to the floor to avoid tripping hazards
  • Heavy items are not stored on high shelves, as they could fall on the employee

Even when a workplace accident occurs at an remote employee's home, you still need to document it. Download our workplace injury report template to ensure consistent record-keeping and to help you analyze risk.

Fire and Weather Emergencies

Every employer has emergency procedures for their workplace. Make sure your employees working from home do, too.

Safeguarding the workplace environment against fires and natural disasters can be difficult for remote employees. They may reside in a different city, state or country than where your company operates and, hence, experience different weather. They may live in an older home with electrical issues or a less robust structure.

Should a fire start in the employee's work area or a natural disaster lead to employee injury while they're in their home office, you could be liable.

What are Employers Responsible For?

Work with each remote employee to write personalized emergency plans based on their home. For instance, employees who live in apartments should have different evacuation plans than those who live in detached homes. Some employees will need earthquake response plans, while others should prepare for tornadoes and others for severe winter storms.

Keep remote employees safe in fire and weather emergencies by ensuring that:

  • Cords, papers and other combustible items are organized and stored away from heat sources
  • Smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are installed and in working order
  • Outlets are grounded and not overloaded
  • Electrical equipment has surge protection
  • They have an evacuation plan
  • Exits are unobstructed
  • The work area has more than one exit
  • A fire extinguisher is in or within easy access of the work area
  • The electrical system is in good condition and sufficient for the employee's work
  • Switches and outlets are covered with plates
  • They have emergency supplies including a first aid kit, flashlights, blankets, etc.

Mental Health Issues

Not all health and safety issues faced by employees working from home are physical. Working alone at home all day can take a toll on remote employees' mental health.

Remote workers cite loneliness as their biggest challenge. Without the camaraderie of an office setting, they may feel isolated and left out. A lack of contact and feedback from their manager might make remote employees feel confused, lost and worried about their performance.

Employees working from home also often experience burnout. With constant access to their office and work devices, they might feel obligated to work late into the night or start early in the morning. Long work hours can lead to sleep disruptions, anxiety and withdrawal from family and friends.

What are Employers Responsible For?

OSHA now covers mental health issues that are work-related, which would include the negative feelings that can stem from working remotely. As a result, employers are responsible for their employees' mental well-being to the same degree as their physical health.

To support your remote employees' mental health:

  • Offer mental health benefits
  • Use technology to keep employees connected for both work and social events
  • Schedule regular check-ins with remote employees
  •  Encourage physical fitness
  • Be flexible with remote employees' work hours
  • Recognize and reward remote employees when they do good work
  • Encourage good work/life balance
  • Share mental health resources with all employees

Health and Safety for Employees Working From Home

Protecting your remote employees in their home offices can be challenging, especially if they don't live near your home office. Even though no official laws hold employers liable for home office accidents, it's better to be safe than sorry. You'll protect not only your remote employees, but also your reputation.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the safety hazards for remote workers?

Safety hazards for remote workers include poor ergonomics leading to musculoskeletal issues, environmental factors like poor lighting or ventilation, and the risk of fire and weather emergencies in their home offices.

What are the negative health effects of remote working?

Negative health effects of remote working include physical issues such as eye strain, musculoskeletal disorders, and sitting-related complications like obesity and cardiovascular disease, as well as mental health challenges like loneliness, burnout, and anxiety.

Are remote employees covered by OSHA?

Remote employees are covered by OSHA for work-related injuries and illnesses to the same extent as their physical health, which includes mental well-being according to recent OSHA guidelines.