Why OSHA Might Start to Level More Scrutiny on Work-From-Home

As more and more people work from home, expect OSHA and other regulators to zero in on home working conditions.
By: | August 12, 2020

Employees appear to be content working from home during the pandemic and a significant majority want to continue doing so when normalcy returns. However, risks have emerged that employers and their insurance providers should take steps to mitigate to reduce future costs and potential encounters with regulators.

A full 74% of the 1,202 respondents to a survey conducted by insurer Chubb between May 26 and June 4 said they want to spend more time working from home when the pandemic subsides.

“That has long-term implications for businesses in terms of restructuring their workforces,” said Sean Ringstead, chief risk and digital officer at Chubb.

“There are also long-term implications from some of the risks the survey uncovered.”

Emphasis on Tech Performance

Ringstead noted the emphasis placed on technology to make remote work possible. “But what really comes out of the survey is the resilience and dedication of people seeking to make this work, and striking a balance between work and home life,” he said.

James D’Errico, regional risk control leader, Gallagher

On the technology front, Chubb notes that cyber security experts, including its own, have pointed out the elevated risk from cyber attacks with so many working remotely.

The survey found that 3% of respondents had experienced cyber attacks, unsurprisingly, since 83% acknowledged using their personal email or personal devices to conduct business, and 88% use personal printers — less safe than company-provided technology with secure access to corporate servers.

Wealthy respondents, defined as earning $500,000 or more annually, reported even more cyber troubles, with one in 10 saying they were the victim of an attack.”

The pandemic sent 25% or more of the U.S. workforce to work from home with little warning, often to kitchen tables or other impromptu working settings without the proper equipment. The technology issues can be addressed relatively quickly, but the impact on employees themselves may take longer to deal with.

More Comfort = More Productivity?

On the plus side, Ringstead, said, most employees have shown significant resilience and dedication, with seven in 10 workers saying their productivity is equal to or greater in a work-from-home environment. Wealthy and younger respondents reported the highest levels of productivity.

However, 37% said they’re working longer hours, and for 17% that’s more than 10 extra hours a week. Without an ergonomically appropriate work setting at home, even working regular hours can take its toll on employees physically. In fact, the survey found two in five respondents said they feel new or increased pain in their shoulders, back and/or wrists.

Younger workers were much more likely than older workers to experience this pain and discomfort, the survey notes, with half of those between 20 and 35 reporting such pain, and 28% of those between 56 and 65.

The physical impact is “to be expected, because people are going from an environment in the workplace where they have controls in place for proper seating, to working from home where they’re at the mercy of whatever equipment they have at their disposal,” said James D’Errico, regional risk control leader for Gallagher.

“I believe OSHA will be looking at work-at-home environments even more going ahead, especially based on what has happened in the last five months.” — James D’Errico, regional risk control leader for Gallagher

D’Errico said it’s a common misperception that employers should not get involved in employees’ lives outside the office, and employees may also guard their privacy. In the current situation, however, the home workspace becomes an extension of the office, “So it’s the duty of the employer to make sure workstations are properly adjusted to the employee and in a safe area.”

One common issue is that employees are working on laptops with smaller monitors that require users to look down, and that can lead to discomfort and long-term pain. D’Errico said Chubb provides a checklist of important work-from-home considerations, but an ergonomist providing advice from photos of each employee’s home workspace may be beneficial.

As parents often tell their children, “Sit up straight.” A chair with proper back support is vital, and D’Errico notes that legs should be a right angles to the person’s torso, with elbows also bent at right angles. Placing a laptop on a box so the user looks straight at the screen instead of down is one solution, as is using a wireless keyboard so arms can rest in a neutral position—in ergonomic terms.

Without addressing the ergonomic issue, D’Errico said, a main concern is that employees may be working in an uncomfortable and potentially painful environment. That leads to more frequent unscheduled breaks and less productivity, and potentially also long-term injury.

In turn that can result in more insurance claims and higher insurance premiums, and potentially even regulatory violations.

D’Errico said that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) does not have a formal ergonomic standard. However, it can cite organizations under the general duty clause, where employers are responsible for creating a safe work place regardless of its location — this may lead to additional violations.

“I believe OSHA will be looking at work-at-home environments even more going ahead, especially based on what has happened in the last five months,” D’Errico said.

“There have never been so many people working from home, and I believe this will lead to heightened awareness by OSHA.”

Shift in Communication

Emily Brainerd, regional vice president, wellbeing and engagement practice leader in Gallagher’s benefits and HR consulting division, noted that in addition to the physical change, working from home during the pandemic requires monitoring employees’ mental health.

An employees’ financial wellbeing — perhaps a spouse lost his/ or her job — and work-life balance can add to stress, and managers must be trained to think differently about how to interact with remote employees.

“Most managers have no idea how to manage remotely, and there are definitely differences in how you communicate,” Brainerd said.

“Now there’s a need for empathy and flexibility regarding how and when people work. There also must be a focus on managers, so they themselves are supported in terms of their emotional wellbeing and how they support employees in this environment.”

Brainerd noted that employee assistance programs (EAPs) still tend to hold a stigma and tend to be underutilized, but they can be useful in the current environment.

“They can provide support for those struggling with stress or mental-health conditions, and depending on which one a company has they may provide concierge-type services to help with things like parenting,” Brainerd said. &

John Hintze is a freelance writer who can be reached at [email protected].