Remote and hybrid work arrangements, which were introduced when pandemic locks forced many workers to stay at home, have left employers with lingering safety-related concerns even when covid-19 disappears.
Many ergonomic problems related to teleworking were well known before the pandemic, but with regular home offices, these problems require an extra level of attention, sources say. And employers should be especially careful about workers’ compensation exposures that have evolved as employees continue to work from remote locations.
Employers can use technology to help set employees up remotely and train them in safety protocols, they say.
A claim to working conditions filed in a state where an employee has not previously worked can create problems if the employer did not update their records and applications, says Peter R. Siegel, a lawyer in the employment and employment and litigation groups at Greenspoon Marder LLP in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
“The employer may be liable not only for the claim and medical bills and lost income but may also be subject to penalties and fines in the state in which the claim was filed,”; said Mr. Seal. “We keep telling companies that you need to do a better job of tracking your employees.”
“Unfortunately, employers fail to have workers’ rules that accurately reflect their workforce,” he said. Many assumed that the pandemic would be over quickly and “still operate under an outdated policy, meaning that nowhere in the policy outweighs the reality of having employees throughout the United States.”
The fixation usually requires an investment of time to sort out the coverage.
“Employers need to contact their broker and insurance company and make sure their working conditions reflect this new reality of teleworking,” said Mr. Seal.
Some employers get “all-state policies” that give them flexibility if they have a multi-state workforce, while others buy a separate policy for teleworkers, he said.
Insurers can provide a policy that allows employers to list all employees’ homes and workplaces.
“One of the key issues in dealing with this type of risk is determining determinability,” said Rich Ives, vice president responsible for workers’ compensation claims at Travelers Cos. Inc. in Hartford, Connecticut. It means finding out if an injury has occurred in the course and extent of the employment, he said.
Insurers also want to know if an injury was related to a pre-existing condition, said Mr. Ives. That is the purpose of a travel unit that examines the applicant’s medical history to determine if injuries occurred before they worked remotely, he said.
Polly James, senior head of risk management at Feld Entertainment Inc. in Palmetto, Florida, who also worked in risk management for a large hotel company, said most employees should not try to deceive employers. “Most people who have an accident at home are more likely to take responsibility for it themselves and not file a claim for damages,” she said.
That seems to be true for Lockton Cos. LLC, says Paul Primavera, the broker’s vice president and head of national risk control services in Irvine, California. The burden is on the teleworker to prove whether injuries are work-related, and the broker has not seen any noticeable difference in claims because workers have moved their offices to their homes, he said.
But employers increase the likelihood that workers will claim if they ignore employees’ ergonomics in the home office, experts say.
“The amount of time they spend on their computers is skyrocketing, and the potential for ergonomic workers’ claims can increase with teleworkers,” said Liz Petersen, San Diego-based quality manager at the Society for Human Resource Management’s knowledge center.
“Many people who started working from a virtual office two years ago may still be sitting in the same chair in their kitchen working at the same table,” said Chris Hayes, Hartford-based vice president of risk control for workers’ compensation and transportation at Travelers.
“If you have someone working from home for a certain amount of time, you need to make sure they have a good ergonomic setting,” which includes a chair that supports proper posture as well as proper screen height, keyboard range, mouse position and other features, he said.
Alan Roberts, senior risk engineering consultant at Zurich Resilience Solutions in San Francisco, a unit of Zurich Insurance Group Ltd., said many companies use self-assessment software to identify and manage ergonomic risk factors when workers report problems.
Employers should emphasize the importance of early reporting of discomfort, Roberts said. Knowing as soon as possible what worries the workers can reveal what types of changes need to be made and get them healthy faster, he said.
Ideally, ergonomics training should take place before a worker moves to a remote location, according to Roberts and other experts.
Greater attention to ergonomics has apparently paid off for employers, says Jennifer Law, vice president, senior loss control consultant, at Lockton Cos. LLC in Charlotte, North Carolina. “We see the risk,” she said, but have not seen an increase in workers’ claims.
Law said employers were forced by pandemic locks to advise workers on setting up remote offices and to provide them with furniture and equipment designed to keep them safe. Many consult virtually with employees to determine their office needs and contract with third-party vendors to help set up workspaces, she said.