telecommuting

As more Americans work from home than ever before, many employers are wondering about their obligations under OSHA as well as how to reduce the chances that workers may be injured while telecommuting.

Obviously, the chances of an injury when working from home are small. The most common issue that is likely to arise long-term injuries from poor workstation design, which can result in carpal tunnel syndrome and other stress and ergonomic injuries that develop over time.

For the most part, employers should approach workplace safety for telecommuting workers as they would safety for office workers, particularly workstation design and arrangement (ergonomics) as well as work scheduling and distribution.

Duties under OSHA

Under OSHA’s General Duty Clause applies to anyplace an employer has staff working, be that at the company’s facilities or worksites, at a customer’s worksite, or even if they work from home.

Under the clause, employers have a general duty to “furnish to each of his employee’s employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.”

Fortunately, most workplace safety specialists say that employers have a little responsibility in ensuring a safe workplace. In fact, OSHA has issued guidance stating that it:

  • Won’t inspect employee’s home offices
  • Won’t hold employers responsible for safety in home offices, and
  • Does not expect employers to inspect home offices.

Workers’ comp still in play

While that is good news, employers are still responsible for any injuries an employee suffers while working from home under workers’ compensation laws.

For an injury to be considered work-related it must:

  • Have happened while the employee is on the clock, and
  • Occur while the worker is performing their work tasks.

With that in mind, employers do have an obligation to ensure that a home worksite is safe in order to prevent injuries, even if OSHA does not require it.

The international law firm of Foley & Lardner, LLP recommends that employers:

  • Provide assistance and guidance to employees regarding the setup of the home worksite. Consider developing a YouTube video or written handout giving instructions pertaining to the setting up of equipment in an ergonomic fashion, electrical setup (i.e., only plug in two electrical devices in an outlet, etc.).
  • Establish a hotline or other communication mechanism for remote employees to call if in need of assistance.
  • Develop a checklist addressing safety and productivity issues and have employees complete the checklist every six months or so.
  • Train employees on a recurring basis (such as annually) as to remote employees’ obligations to report alleged work injuries and/or illnesses, and how to report such injuries and/or illnesses.

Specific tips

  • The desk, chair, keyboard, mouse, terminal, and other accessories should all be at the appropriate heights to reduce strain on the eyes, neck, and wrists:
    • The keyboard and mouse should be at the right height where wrists are in a neutral position.
    • The chair should be at the right height to ensure the employee can type without strain on the wrists and so that they are looking directly straight ahead at the terminal.
    • The terminal should be placed at eye level.
    • The desk should be at the right height to ensure all of the above. A kitchen table or counter would usually not be suitable.
  • Ensure that the equipment is sturdy. For example, the desk should be appropriate height and sturdy enough to handle the weight of any peripheral equipment that your work may place on it (e.g., computers, printers, fax machines, scanners, etc.).
  • Ensure that lighting is properly arranged: there should not be reflections on or glare from the computer monitor.
  • Make sure extension cords and cables are in good condition and do not present a tripping hazard.

The takeaway

While you as an employer are not required under OSHA regulations to inspect your workers’ home’s for compliance, it is a good idea to give them guidelines for how to set up their home office and also work with them to supply any needed furniture or accessories they would need to safely carry out their work tasks.

You may also want to consider asking them to install a smoke alarm in their home and that they have a plan to evacuate in case of fire or other emergency. Also if they have a lot of electrical equipment, there should be sufficient ventilation.