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January 4, 2016

Telecommuting Requires Special Workers’ Comp Attention

Many companies are now using telecommuting as a regular work option for some of their workforce—
and why not?

Even in agriculture, there are many reasons why allowing workers to work from home can provide many benefits to the workers and the company.  This work option allows the company to draw from a wider pool of workers as employees do not need to be physically located near the main office of the entity.  Since much of today’s work can be done electronically through computers, phones and fax machines, employees can be located almost anywhere and still perform their work effectively.

From the employer’s viewpoint, the firm can hire the best people for the job and not require them to relocate.  This may also enable the employer to hire a more affordable candidate, since it will have a larger number of prospects to recruit from.  Once the employee is onboard, he or she can be more productive as less time will be spent traveling back and forth to work.  The employee will also be working when she is most productive during the day, which also adds to the person’s productivity.  From the view of employees who get this benefit, they get a job that they really want, get to work out of the comfort of their home and save time and money because they don’t have to drive into the office on a daily basis.  It can truly be a “win-win” for both parties, making for happy employees who produce a better work product for the employer.  Telecommuting can be a very positive work option for many firms.

However, with employees working out of their homes, the company has created a new work exposures that it needs to deal with.  Even though the employees are working out of their homes, the company is responsible for injuries and accidents related to work that occur.  How can a company deal with the workers’ compensation exposure of its telecommuters?  First and foremost, companies need to be aware of the working conditions in the homes of their telecommuters.  Although it may be difficult, it is advisable to inspect the “office” of each home worker to insure the work area is free from any conditions that might cause an accident or an injury.  The telecommuter should have an area specifically set aside as their work area that has a desk, chair, computer, printer, fax machine and proper lighting so they can work safely without risk of suffering an injury.  It would not be advisable for a worker to try to operate out of their garage or even their kitchen since those areas have other uses and might present a higher risk than a typical office exposure.

The second concern is determining when a worker is actually performing work-related activities and when they are doing “other” things not related to work.  If a telecommuter is injured at home, one of the first questions that need to be addressed is whether the injury is work related or not.

The following scenarios demonstrate the issue.  Which of these situations are work-related injuries?

•   Employee drives to store to pick up office supplies for their home office.

•   Employee goes out to car to retrieve a work document, trips in the garage and breaks his leg.

•   Employee gets up in the middle of the night to check voicemail, falls down stairs and injures her back.

Although these might not seem to be workers’ compensation injuries, they could be considered a work-related injury.  Practically, any injury that occurs while a telecommuter is doing anything even remotely related to “doing their job,” could be considered a workers’ compensation loss.  Employers need to anticipate the potential for these losses and minimize the chances for them occurring.  Employers should take the following steps in preparation of telecommuting situations:

•   Inspect employee home offices to insure that it is safe;

•   Make sure office, desk and chair are ergonomically sound;

•   Define the “home office” boundaries clearly—outside of this area is not workspace;

•   Establish regular hours for work so that unusual work times are not considered typical;

•   Have well documented job descriptions and clear definitions of employee responsibilities and duties;

•   Communicate clearly that telecommuting is a privilege and failure to follow guidelines can result in termination of the privilege.

Finally, finding the right workers’ compensation carrier with experience dealing with telecommuters is extremely important.  The insurance company can provide safety tips and training for employees on how to stay safe while telecommuting.  Western Growers Insurance Services has many providers that are well versed in telecommuting.  If you want more information, contact Greg Nelson, WGIS vice president, for more details.