Safe Place to Work? Issues to Consider with Your Remote Workers

In March, numerous businesses were forced to close their physical offices and create work from home opportunities for their employees to ensure efficient operations continued.  For some companies that had already converted to a virtual remote workspace, this transition was easy.  For the majority of businesses, however, this was unexpected and presented numerous growing pains.  Whether you consider this work from home situation temporary or you are considering making it more permanent, there are several issues you should consider when it comes to ensuring a safe workplace for your remote workers.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has issued directives regarding home-based worksites indicating that the agency does not conduct inspections of employees’ home offices.  OSHA further states that it will not hold employers liable for employees’ home offices, but that if OSHA receives an employee complaint, OSHA may informally let employers know of the complaint.  The idea here is that the Department of Labor encourages work from home arrangements and also wants to respect the privacy of an employee’s home.  That said, OSHA guidelines do state that they will still conduct inspections of home offices for complaints regarding home-based manufacturing operations that threaten physical harm or where imminent danger exists.  For the majority of companies, there should be minimal concern regarding an OSHA violation as it relates to your employees working from home.  To ensure no issues exist, it would be best practice to provide employees with some general safety guidelines regarding their workspace.  In the current COVID-19 situation, we would suggest you continue to encourage your employees to follow sanitization advice as if they were in public.  Here is some OSHA guidance related to that advice.

The more pressing area of concern for employers with stay at home employees is in the area of workplace injuries and workers’ compensation.  In general, employees are still covered under workers compensation if they are injured or get ill while working at home if the injury or illness arises out of or occurred in the course and scope of employment.  Even with employees working outside their traditional workspace, employers still have a duty to provide a safe workplace.  The Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM), suggests employers implement the following practices to limit workers’ compensation liability for remote employees:

(1) create a telecommuting policy that outlines the employer’s expectations for employees who work from home;

(2) establish guidelines for a home office, such as a designated work area, and provide training related to workstation setup and safety measures, including ergonomics;

(3) when appropriate and possible, conduct periodic checks of employee home offices to help identify and eliminate work area safety hazards; and

(4) set fixed hours and meal and rest periods for telecommuters.

Even if your company is a non-subscriber, these tips from SHRM can greatly reduce your risk of negligence lawsuits based on a failure to provide a safe workplace.  While the transition to the work from home was abrupt for many employers, as time has passed and the dust has started to settle, implementing these suggestions would be prudent even if only temporary.

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