As a large number of workers continue to work from home, are organisations opening themselves up to more injury claims?
National work health and safety authority Comcare received 25 work from home claims from April to June this year, compared to zero during the same period last year. The comparative rise in injuries and claims serves as a reminder to HR professionals to review existing work from home approaches.
“Home has doubled as the workplace for much of this year so it is unsurprising that workers have made claims for workplace illness or injury while working from home,” says Bianca Mendelson, senior associate Clayton Utz.
Many people are still preferring to work from home at least some of the time, even in States and Territory where it is no longer mandatory, she says.
“It’s likely that flexible work arrangements will continue long after the pandemic ends because technology, high speed internet at home and the emergence of videoconferencing platforms means working at home is now so much more of an option.”
It is important that HR professionals continue to test assumptions and review whether existing approaches to managing risks are still effective with such a large proportion of employees working from home, says Mendelson.
“This is especially the case given the ever-evolving landscape of workplace regulation and the changes that COVID-19 has brought about.”
Don’t ‘set and forget’
If employees are performing work at home, employers have an obligation to ensure their health and safety, so far as is reasonably practicable.
“This includes the obligation to provide and maintain a safe work environment What we are seeing as an increased risk area in this respect is what we call a ‘set and forget’ mentality – where organisations urgently put in place arrangements at the beginning of COVID-19, but have not revisited these arrangements,” says Hilary Searing, special counsel Clayton Utz.
Musculoskeletal injuries caused by poor ergonomic workstations is an obvious risk. Other risks include social isolation, difficulties in delineating between work and home leading to fatigue and burnout, and stress caused by job uncertainty, says Searing.
“At the start of the pandemic, many people did not have (and still may not have) a dedicated workspace at home and needed to make do with what they had, even if it was a laptop and their kitchen bench.
“While this may have been reasonably practicable at the start of the pandemic when everyone had to work from home almost overnight, some eight months on, what is reasonably practicable is likely to have changed,” she says.
Given the rapid pace of transition to remote work at the start of the pandemic, many organisations may not have been able to follow all of their usual work-from-home processes such as assessing the employee’s proposed at home workstations, notes Searing.
“However, as work from home arrangements have now been in place for many months, and we now know more about COVID-19, it is vital that businesses review their current arrangements to ensure they are doing all that is reasonably practicable to provide a safe work environment for workers at home.”
Reviewing your current approach could include reassessing or updating your risk assessments for working from home.
If it is still not reasonably practicable to undertake their usual work-from-home arrangements, documenting why this is the case and carefully considering what alternative controls organisations have put in place to manage these risks, Searing says.
Mendelson says the test for workers’ compensation liability is the same regardless of where the employee is performing the work, for example if the workplace is a more traditional office or working from home.
“If a worker is injured falling over while, for example, walking to the bathroom at home while undertaking work, the injury may likely be covered under workers’ compensation insurance,” says Mendelson.
The test depends on whether the injury or illness arises out of, or in the course of, employment, and the employment was the main (or substantial / significant, depending on your jurisdiction) contributing factor.
Review employment contracts
Well drafted and well communicated employment contracts and company policies and procedures are crucial for ensuring employees have a clear understanding of expectations, especially in the context of significant change such as more long-term working from home arrangements, says Mendelson.
“Any uncertainty as to expectations and proper procedure will only be exacerbated while employees are working from home, because of the lack of face-to-face contact and the fact communication is limited to telephone and digital means.”
“That’s why we recommend that organisations take the time now to review their employment contracts and policies to ensure they are still fit for purpose,” she says.
Tips to mitigate risks
Below are some tips from Mendelson for employers to mitigate the risks associated with working from home arrangements:
- Set clear boundaries – Clarify when the employee is ‘at work’ to make it clear what the boundaries are between work and personal time. Consider establishing set times for when people are expected to be online while working remotely and switch off access to systems after a certain time as a virtual “shutting of the doors” to indicate the end of the work day.
- Incident reporting – Update your workplace incident reporting policy to include working-from-home related incidents and reinforce to employees that they must report workplace incidents, even if they occur at home, as they happen.
- Prompt action – Investigate at home injuries as soon as they are reported. Speak to the injured employee and seek details to determine whether the employee was injured during the course of employment, or while undertaking private activities unconnected to work (eg. going for a run during work hours).
- Policy update – Update existing policies and procedures to cover working from home arrangements to ensure they remain fit for purpose.
- Consultation – Consult with workers regarding WHS risks and concerns related to working from home and seeking suggestions on how to best manage those risks.
Looking for resources, templates or tip sheets? AHRI has a range of practical resources to
help you improve employee health and safety