The coronavirus pandemic has necessitated a drastic rise in remote work. Some companies have given up their physical office and have moved all employees to remote status. Other companies allow employees to work remotely, but still maintain a physical office.
While many people report enjoying the freedom that comes with working from home, there’s a downside: the potential for injury.
New remote workers are at high risk for musculoskeletal injury
People who either sit or stand all day are susceptible to musculoskeletal injuries that can become serious and require medical treatment. Those who regularly work from home are still at risk, but are often more prepared to prevent injury. Many have spent time getting the right ergonomic furniture and have set up their routine to include breaks.
Treating musculoskeletal injuries isn’t cheap. It’s easy for office workers to get compensated for their injuries through their employer’s workers’ compensation policy. However, remote employees don’t always qualify.
Generally, work from home injuries aren’t covered when an employee works from home for their own convenience. This makes injury prevention even more essential for remote employees who aren’t required, but choose to work from home.
Musculoskeletal injuries are a big concern, but it’s not the only potential injury remote workers face. Remote workers are also susceptible to eye and neck strain from staring at a computer screen all day.
Too much “screen time” has detrimental effects
“Screen time” limits aren’t just for kids. Anyone who stares at a screen for hours on end is at risk for several types of injury including neck strain and vision problems.
Most Americans stare at a screen for at least 7 hours each day. In addition to eye strain and near-sightedness, the main problem with screens is they emit blue light. Blue light disrupts the body’s circadian rhythm, which makes it difficult to sleep. Blue light blocks melatonin production; melatonin is the hormone secreted at night that tells the body it’s time to sleep.
After a short period of time being continually exposed to blue light, especially at night, a person can become sleep deprived. Once sleep deprived, the body’s organs start shutting down.
People who experience sleep deprivation tend to become frustrated, quick to anger, and many people become accident-prone.
Employers can’t control a remote worker’s home office environment
Employers have no way to control how a remote worker performs their work at home. Unlike traditional offices, OSHA does not require home office inspections and with limited exceptions, advises against such inspections to respect privacy.
An employer can’t force a remote employee to use ergonomic furniture like they would have to use in a traditional office. An employer can’t force a remote employee to take breaks, walk around, stretch, or get fresh air. However, an employer can create a safety checklist that must be reviewed and signed as a condition of remote employment.
A safety checklist will help to keep employees safe
Employers should use a safety checklist to establish the general safety of the home office environment as a condition of remote employment. For example, a checklist might include the following yes or no list items:
- Is the work area free from hazards that can cause injury, including messy wires, wires strung across a walkway, frayed wires, and loose fixtures?
- Are there any known asbestos materials in the work space?
- Is ventilation adequate?
- Is fresh, drinkable water available?
- Does the restroom have running hot and cold water?
- Are walkways and corners free from obstructions?
- Are all carpets or rugs secured to the floor?
- Is the electricity properly wired? Can the electrical system handle grounding additional work-related equipment?
- Is the home office furniture ergonomic?
As long as general safety requirements are met, the employer shouldn’t have to worry about their remote employees’ safety. This kind of checklist can also support an employer if an employee lies about the conditions of their work environment and tries to sue for an injury obtained in a way that contradicts their signed checklist.
For instance, if an employee gets their toe caught under an area rug, trips, and breaks their arm, it will be harder to sue for injury if that employee affirmed that all rugs were secured to the floor.
The risk for injury is part of doing business
Every employer takes on the risk of having an injured employee. Even with extreme caution, it’s impossible to avoid all injuries. However, employers can reduce the risk of injury by providing employees with ergonomic equipment like keyboards, mice, desks, and chairs. With the right equipment and safety awareness, the risk for remote work injuries can be significantly reduced.