The COVID-19 pandemic has led to major shifts in how employees work and live. In particular, remote work has become an increasingly common arrangement across the country. Whereas just 6% of employed Americans worked primarily from home before the pandemic, more than one-third (35%) of the workforce went fully remote during 2020 — totaling nearly 49 million employees.1
What’s more, a significant portion of these employees will continue working from home in the post-pandemic world. In fact, 83% of employees who can work remotely said they would like to continue doing so at least once every week after the pandemic subsides, while 32% want to work from home full time.2 With this in mind, many employers may have to manage remote workers for the foreseeable future. That’s why businesses must take steps to ensure the health and safety of employees who work from home.
After all, employers are responsible for keeping their workforce protected from potential illnesses and injuries on the job, even amid remote operations. Failing to safeguard employees who work from home could lead to costly incidents and subsequent workers’ compensation claims. This risk is especially prevalent within the office and clerical industry groups, which account for most remote workers and contribute to nearly 60% of the workers’ compensation payroll.3 Here’s an outline of key exposures for employees who work from home, and steps that businesses can take to minimize these risks, thus reducing workers’ compensation costs.
Remote work exposures
Remote operations can help reduce workers’ compensation claims related to several exposures. Namely, the risk of driving-related injuries — such as those from motor vehicle accidents — is lower for remote employees, considering they are less likely to engage in work-related travel (e.g., visiting a client on-site or going on a business trip).4 Yet working from home carries its own unique set of health and safety risks. Specifically, remote operations make it more difficult for businesses to ensure that their employees have appropriate home office configurations. Consequently, employees’ remote work environments may present additional hazards and contribute to occupational injuries or illnesses. Some of the most common remote work exposures include:5
- Ergonomic concerns — Often, employees don’t consider ergonomics when establishing their home office setups. In some cases, remote workers lack home offices altogether. Over half (52%) of remote employees utilize home offices, while more than one-third (34%) work from their dining room tables and 14% work from the couch.6 Such work environments can lead employees to engage in inadequate ergonomic practices (e.g., poor posture, awkward body positioning and overexertion). Over time, these practices could contribute to various musculoskeletal disorders, including muscle strains and sprains, stress fractures, tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome.7
- Slip, trip and fall risks — Apart from ergonomic hazards, employees who work from home may also encounter higher slip, trip and fall risks in the course and scope of employment. Slip, trip and fall injuries are the top cause of workers’ compensation claims across industry lines — both in remote and on-site environments.8 In the scope of remote operations, these risks typically stem from poorly placed electrical cords or unsafe storage practices for workplace technology (i.e., leaving a laptop on the floor where it poses a tripping hazard).
What’s worse, businesses may have a more challenging time checking in on employees who work from home. Without regular check-ins, employers may not recognize if their workers start displaying initial signs of occupational injuries or illnesses. These issues may go unnoticed until they worsen into serious problems, resulting in further pain and suffering for impacted employees and potentially contributing to costlier workers’ compensation claims.
For employees’ injuries or illnesses to be considered occupational in nature — thus qualifying for workers’ compensation — they must occur within the scope of employment. While this is a relatively clear definition for employees who work on-site, making such a distinction can be increasingly difficult when employees live and work in the same environment. Accordingly, remote operations can also increase the risk of employees falsely claiming their injuries or illnesses are work-related, therefore committing workers’ compensation fraud. Although businesses do everything they can to ensure a trustworthy and reliable workforce, this exposure must be considered. Such a risk might be particularly prevalent among businesses that engage in remote hiring practices and never meet their employees in person. These workers may feel less connected to their place of employment and more likely to commit fraud.
Steps businesses can take
“83% of employees who can work remotely said they would like to continue doing so at least once every week after the pandemic subsides, while 32% want to work from home full time”
Despite the exposures associated with employees working from home, there are several steps that businesses can take to help protect their remote workers from occupational illnesses and injuries. To keep employees safe and mitigate potential workers’ compensation costs, employers should implement the following measures:9
- Ensure safe setups. First and foremost, businesses should make sure their remote employees have adequate workstations in place. If workers have home offices, they should be highly encouraged to use those spaces. An employee’s workstation should consist of a sturdy, spacious, level work surface (e.g., a table or desk), as well as a comfortable, supportive chair equipped with armrests and a backrest. The chair should also be adjustable so employees’ feet can be firmly planted on the floor, knees have plenty of room, wrists don’t have to bend, shoulders can remain relaxed, and eyes line up with a point about one-third of the distance from the top of the monitor.10 If employees lack the equipment or technology necessary to establish a safe workstation at home, businesses should provide these items for their workers.
- Establish work hours. By communicating boundaries regarding work hours, employers can ensure that workers understand when they need to be online. Additionally, establishing concrete work hours can help eliminate the risk of employees making false occupational injury or illness claims for incidents before or after work. If necessary, businesses should have their employees follow daily timekeeping protocols (i.e., clocking in and out) to emphasize work hours further. In the event that questionable workers’ compensation claims arise outside of established work hours, employers should take steps to thoroughly investigate the validity of these claims.
- Adopt a remote work policy. Employers should develop and distribute a remote work policy that clearly outlines their expectations for remote employees. This policy should explain workstation standards, offer additional guidance on remote work safety topics (e.g., staying organized and storing work items properly), and provide steps for reporting occupational injuries and illnesses from home. It may be necessary to consult legal counsel when creating such a policy. This policy should be reviewed regularly and updated as needed.
- Conduct regular check-ins. Employers should engage in routine check-ins to stay updated on how remote employees are doing and ensure that they uphold safe work practices. These check-ins can help businesses detect whether remote employees display any initial indicators of occupational illnesses or injuries and deter workers from falsifying ailments. Further, such check-ins can help make remote workers feel cared for by their employers, boosting overall engagement and reducing the likelihood of employees making deceitful workers’ compensation claims.11 If employees voice concerns during these check-ins or show early signs of potential ailments, employers should introduce steps to help remedy such problems before they become severe and result in workers’ compensation claims.
- Take illness and injury reports seriously. Finally, it’s crucial to work closely with remote employees who report occupational illnesses or injuries to ensure that they receive prompt treatment and adequate support. Namely, employers should incorporate services such as telemedicine or a nurse triage hotline within their workers’ compensation programs to make sure that their remote employees receive timely, quality care and have the resources needed for a safe recovery.
In summary, businesses must keep in mind that remote operations — although generally lower-risk overall — still carry various exposures that could result in workers’ compensation claims. As more businesses adopt either fully remote or hybrid work arrangements, time will tell how such operations impact workers’ compensation costs. Nevertheless, businesses can keep their workforces safe and successful by reviewing remote work risks and introducing measures to avoid these concerns.