Formal policy should be part of home agreement

The best way to approach safety and health in the home office is with a formal agreement that outlines the employee’s responsibilities, says Jim Miller, general manager of US West Extended Workplace Solutions in Denver, who oversees the home office work of US West employees.

A telecommuting arrangement requires a great deal of coordination between the employer and the employee, covering everything from working hours to communication methods and data backup. The health and safety of the employee should be included in that agreement, he says.

"They recognize upfront that they have responsibilities to create a home environment that is free of hazards and liability to the employer," Miller says. "It doesn’t matter if they’re working at home, on the road, or in a field in Montana. They’re employees of US West, and they have a responsibility for safety and health. They must recognize that."

The employer should not take a lackadaisical attitude just because the employee is outside the conventional workplace, and neither should the employer be afraid to impose some health and safety requirements, Miller says. The employee is still working for the company (as opposed to an independent contractor), so it is reasonable to impose some restrictions and requirements. The employer’s potential liability is a major motivator, he says.

"A good written agreement shifts the locus of responsibility from the employer to the employee, which is where it should be," Miller says. "If we are going to respect the employee’s privacy by not coming into the home office and inspecting the way we might here in an office building, the employee has to take some responsibility as well. That’s only fair because the employer bears responsibility for any workers’ comp injuries that occur in the home office."

Miller says his company has never encountered a significant workers’ comp claim related to home office work, and other sources say they do not know of any workers’ comp claims for injuries in the home. But occupational health and telecommuting experts agree that any injury occurring in the home office and reasonably related to the work would be considered a compensable injury.

The telecommuting agreement used by US West does not require home office visits, but it does reserve the right to do so. The company rarely exercises that option, but might if there were a significant workers’ comp claim from a home office worker.

If a visit were to find that the employee had not fulfilled his or her obligations to create a safe working environment, that could provide the company with a defense against a workers’ comp claim, Miller says.

"Part of the policy is that a home office visit is never one on one. There always are two people from the [main] office and as many people as the home office worker wants to be there," Miller says. "Otherwise, you’d get into whole different type of risk if you have one-on-one visits in someone’s home."

Occupational health providers should work closely with the risk management department at an employer to demonstrate the potential benefits and risks of a telecommuting arrangement, he says. The risk managers will be the ones who pay attention to the potential for workers’ comp claims and other expenditures from a home office arrangement, so they will be able to influence an employer’s efforts to formulate a policy and provide education.

Most employers are not attuned to the potential health risks of home office arrangements, says William Patterson, MD, FACOEM, MPH, chair of the Medical Policy Board at Occupational Health and Rehabilitation in Wilmington, MA.

Better awareness in industry sector

Employers in industry are always more conscious of the need for occupational health care than are white-collar employers, and that is no different when it comes to telecommuting, he notes. Most telecommuting is done by employees of white-collar, information management companies rather than those in manufacturing. You may face an uphill battle in convincing employers that telecommuting needs your attention.

But as telecommuting becomes more common, Patterson says occupational health professionals should look for the opportunity to ensure the health and safety of those workers just as you would with any other employee population. That will require some modifications to your typical approach, he says, with an emphasis on education more than anything else.

"This is a topic that is not even on the radar screen for a lot of employers, and that’s not OK," Patterson says. "Employers with a substantial number of people working at home should pay attention to it, and we have a role to play in helping them do that."