A Year Into the Pandemic, Don’t Fall Behind by Failing to Assess Work-From-Home Risks

Many workers are celebrating an extensive work-from-home option, but physical and mental injuries may go undetected.
By: | February 1, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic ushered in a new way of working.

As companies shut offices and other workplaces under stay at home orders, employees have had to work from home or remotely.

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The benefits of telecommuting are obvious: Businesses can reduce overheads such as rent and electric bills, while staff can work efficiently from home and achieve a better work-life balance. Yet, as the pandemic has played out, a host of previously overlooked risks have emerged, primarily worker health and wellbeing.

As staff continue to work from home out of full sight of their employer, so the chances of them developing a serious physical or mental condition have increased. These range from common musculoskeletal disorders such as neck and back pain, carpal tunnel or eye-strain to more complex mental health issues like anxiety and depression.

This has been exacerbated by the fact that many companies had no formal procedures in place initially for remote working and ensuring their employees had the right equipment to do their job from home. On top of that are the added stressors of uncertainty about job security, relationships, homeschooling and caring for a family member at home.

“Many employees are just grinning and bearing it, because they want to hold on to their jobs and keep the working from home perk,” said Dennis Tierney, national director of workers’ compensation claims at Marsh.

“That means we’re not seeing much reporting of injuries as a result.”

And because employers can’t be physically present in a worker’s home, it’s harder for them to disprove allegations. It’s only a matter of time before they are inundated with a wave of lawsuits.

“Poor ergonomics in a home office may not result in physical ailments until there has been significant exposure,” said Daniel Kitzes, an associate at Fox Rothschild.

“Likewise, for workers that regularly socialized in breakrooms or by the copier, the isolation may result in progressively increased stress that may cause problems that aren’t immediately apparent.”

The Risks of Home Working

Among the most common ailments are those related to excessive use of computer screens and bad posture. This can be easily remediated with the right equipment and small adjustments to how the operative is positioned.

Dennis Tierney, national director of workers’ comp claims, Marsh

“We are seeing a higher incidence of discomfort associated with static laptop use, said Thomas Hilgen, workforce vitality practice leader, integrated casualty consulting at Willis Towers Watson.

“To improve morale, work-from-home comfort and efficiencies and reduce the likelihood of claims and lawsuits, most companies are offering their employees to use their chairs or peripherals from their work office to improve ergonomics at home.”

The reality is that rather than striking a better work-life balance, being at home means employees find it harder to separate their professional and personal lives, often ending up working longer hours and putting themselves at risk of burnout.

This is evidenced in a recent survey by cloud infrastructure form Digital Ocean, which found that 82% of remote workers complained of burnout and 52% said they worked longer hours than office-based colleagues.

“Often it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of constantly working late into the evening without setting any boundaries in terms of work hours and checking and responding to emails,” said Lori Adams, technical director, risk control at Liberty Mutual.

“Employers need to enforce proper limits as well as reminding employees of taking regular breaks and giving them tips on how to improve their workstation setup and posture. This is also an area where insurers and brokers can add value by providing health and safety advice to their clients.”

Another problem is that because home workers are removed from the conventional office environment working with other people, they miss vital social interaction. And the less engaged staff are, the more likely they are to file a workers’ compensation claim.

“During the pandemic, the incidence of psychosocial stressors including anxiety and depression have increased,” said Geoff Barnum, director of therapy and specialist operations, Southeast, at Concentra Medical Center.

“Workers are finding it difficult to define productivity standards and set structure to their day. This is ultimately causing the worker to endure longer working hours and decreasing their work-life balance.”

Ensuring a Safe Working Environment

By law, employers are required to ensure that all employees have a safe environment to work in. They are also mandated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to provide home-based workers with the same workers’ compensation benefits as office counterparts.

Tom Hilgen, casualty consultant, Willis Towers Watson

However, when staff are working from home, it’s very difficult to have oversight and control of this. To try and overcome this, companies need to keep all lines of communication open and make sure their employees are kept updated of the latest news and protocols, including remote working policies, which should be reviewed on a regular basis.

They should also ask employees to carry out a self-assessment or get an ergonomics expert to conduct a virtual risk assessment to ensure as best they can that their workstations are set up properly and they have all the necessary IT infrastructure, systems and support.

In some cases, that will require businesses to supply workers with additional equipment such as laptops, desks, external keyboards and mice, and footrests.

This may also include finding or setting up a private place to work away from any distractions as well as educating them on how to best arrange their workspace, maintain a good posture or ensure adequate lighting, as well as identifying and removing slip and trip hazards.

In addition, employers must check in regularly with individuals on a one-to-one basis to see how they are doing and ensure that they are complying with company health and safety polices, and taking long enough lunch, screen and exercise breaks.

“Employers need to stay connected with their staff and carefully document everything they do as well as any problems reported,” said Aon’s director of ergonomics Scott Smith.

“That includes everything from self and virtual assessments to the supply and setup of equipment and subsequent remedial actions.”

Staff should also be made aware of employee assistance programs which they can access if they are experiencing mental health issues, as well as other wellness programs such as yoga and meditation. Additionally, where they can, companies need to provide flexible working hours to accommodate workers who have to look after children or care for elderly, ill or disabled relatives.

To maintain social interaction, employers should set virtual coffee breaks and other events such as quizzes. Staff should also be encouraged to report problems immediately and turn off their email outside of working hours.

“To ensure this, companies first need to have a robust telecommuting policy in place that stipulates how the employee is going to work, what their set hours are, when and how often they are going to have a break and what equipment they require,” said Jeff Corder, vice president of loss control at AmTrust Financial. “You have also got to make sure that everything is set up correctly from the start.”

Companies also need to monitor and keep records of their workers’ movements and activity online as much as possible so they have evidence in case of an injury claim. In the event, they need to carry out a thorough investigation and check that the injury stated is consistent with the doctor’s medical report.

Workers’ compensation insurance is the main form of coverage to protect companies against health and safety-related claims. Other coverages businesses should consider include management liability insurance.

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“As we start to emerge from the pandemic and employers start to hire again we are going to see a real war for talent and candidates are going to be looking to those companies that do these things well,” said One Call’s chief risk and compliance officer, Kevin Harried.

“The big challenge however, will be if, when they reopen offices, some employees don’t want to return and the legal issues that could cause.”

5 Steps Employers Can Take to Protect Remote Workers’ Wellbeing

  • Draw up, communicate and review your remote working policy with employees;
  • Clearly define each employee’s scope of work and your expectations of them while working remotely;
  • Work with each employee to designate a dedicated work area;
  • Train employees on workstation setup and safety measures as well as ergonomic best practices;
  • Stay in direct contact with employees, checking in daily and via weekly or biweekly video calls, and ensure they know who to report to if there’s a problem. &
Alex Wright is a UK-based business journalist, who previously was deputy business editor at The Royal Gazette in Bermuda. You can reach him at [email protected]

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The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]