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Could your home office kill you?

Is your home office safe? (Thinkstock)

Is your home office safe? (Thinkstock)

A growing army of workers call home their office: their commute lasts a matter of minutes as they amble from breakfast table to cosy workstation still wearing pyjamas.

But while a battalion of homeworkers worldwide may seem like an ingenious way for employers to slash desk space costs and for employees to cut commuting time and costs, it remains unclear who should take responsibility for these workers’ well-being and safety.

Some employers insist home offices meet the same high standards as their workplace. In some countries, laws require oversight. In the US, where several recent workers’ compensation awards were made to homeworkers, employers, insurers and labour attorneys are paying close attention to the issue.

Smoke detectors, sufficient ventilation and a chair with ample back support are just some of the things that are mandatory for London School of Economics employees who want to work from home.

The intent isn’t to scare the 3,000 staff members out of remote-working, said Ann O’Brien, the university’s head of health and safety. Nor is it to relieve it from any responsibility for the well-being of its home-based workers. Instead, “there’s a requirement for us to provide information and training for staff using computers, no matter where they’re using them,” O’Brien said, referring to UK employment regulations, which requires employers to assess any on-the-job risks their homeworkers face.

Europe, and in particular the UK, has been quick off the mark in this area, enacting legislation protecting home-based workers much faster than the US, said Alan King, president and chief operating officer of Workplace Options. King runs an employee support services company with offices in both London in the UK and North Carolina.

Although the US government created policies to encourage and oversee remote-working among federal employees in 2010 the US private sector still doesn’t have a comparable regulatory standard at national level, King added.

Who’s responsible?

Depending on whom you ask the responsibility of keeping home-based employees safe lies with workers, the companies that hire them or both.

Kate North, vice president of global development at e-Work.com, a company that provides web-based training for organisations with remote workers worldwide, thinks employees need to take responsibility for their own well-being, no matter where their office is located. But, she concedes, when working from home, that’s sometimes easier said than done.

“They may not have the space for a proper desk setup and people find themselves working in very awkward positions for extended periods of time,” North said. Plus, she added, “People working from home will work longer hours and need to be reminded to take breaks and move.”

University of Texas research recently revealed that on average, homeworkers put in seven hours a week more than their office-bound colleagues. While they may not have colleagues to nag them to get back to work, homeworkers also don’t have anyone telling them when to take a screen break, or call it a day. 

In the US, a handful of recent workers’ compensation cases for injuries sustained while working from home have ruled in favour of the employee. In 2011, for example, a decorator for retailer JC Penney who routinely worked from her home in Oregon successfully appealed a claim she’d made after tripping over her dog and breaking her arm. A New Jersey case in the same year awarded compensation to the husband of an AT&T remote-worker who died from a pulmonary embolism after sitting at her desk for 10 hours straight. Her husband will be paid up to $1.3 million

Monrae English, an employment attorney with Wild, Carter & Tipton in Fresno, California, warned that US employers with growing payroll of remote-workers could increasingly find themselves on the hook for similar claims.

“There’s more liability with telecommuting,” English said. “You just don’t have any control when they’re at home. They can be smoking. They can do anything they want.”

Of course, desk jobs are far less perilous than those of, say, workers on the manufacturing line. Christine Durst, co-founder of Rat Race Rebellion, a website for homework job listings, says there might be another more prevalent issue with home workers when it comes to on-the-job injury. She suspects those who strain their back or sustain a repetitive stress injury at their home offices won’t rush to tell their employer.

“They so enjoy the environment they’re working in that they will complain less than their office-based counterparts for fear that they’re going to lose that opportunity to continue working from home,” Durst said.

Regardless, the rapid rise in remote-working means more companies around the globe must grapple with keeping their employees safe and injury-free. Here’s how some are handling the issue.

Monitoring workplaces you can’t see

LSE workers can request a consultation at home but the business school does not monitor whether its homeworkers maintain the health and safety precautions on its risk assessment checklist.

“It goes to what is reasonably practical,” said O’Brien, who hasn’t received any reports of work-related injuries sustained by the university’s home-based workers. “I don’t think any employer would be able to know what’s going on in employees’ homes to the same extent that they would in the workplace.”

This is why Jacob Gabrie forbids the real estate agents he employs from meeting with clients in their home or using their personal phone to make business calls. In fact, he’s so concerned about his staff’s personal safety that he pays for their self-defence training.

“There are so many creeps out there,” said Gabrie, CEO of Blackstone Realty Group in El Dorado Hills, California. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman. You don’t know who’s who, and anything can happen.”

It’s not just criminal assaults Gabrie worries about. A client tripping, falling or otherwise getting injured in an estate agent’s home could be a huge liability for his business, he said. Since he can’t monitor employees’ homes, he prefers to avoid the risk entirely.

Sean O’Brien’s employer, Pagely, is less concerned about the potential liability of its employees working from home because the nature of their job involves fewer risks. Headquartered in Chandler, Arizona, the WordPress web hosting company employs more than 20 people, all of whom work remotely and interact with customers by phone, email or online chat. Save for two customer support employees in Bristol, in the UK, most of the company is based in the US. 

Rather than provide safety guidelines or attempt to monitor at-home workspaces, the company provides a $500 to $2,000 allowance which employees can use to purchase ergonomic equipment.

“I went with a nice, giant desk with a keyboard tray,” O’Brien said.

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