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Working from home can be precarious. The household printer is upstairs and the dog lives under my desk, so it’s not a stretch to imagine a scenario where I trip over the dog and/or slip on the stairs as I run up to retrieve a document. And what if I schedule an early Zoom interview and spill my cup of coffee in my lap at my desk or get tangled in the laptop cord in the pre-dawn hours? Then there are the incessant package deliveries at the front door, which may contain work-related materials, and require lifting or dragging sometimes heavy items across the front porch. At some point, it will snow and I’ll have to shovel the walk in order to retrieve the latest issue of Business Insurance from the mailbox.
While some workforces were already remote, many employers are grappling with how to manage a flexible workforce, perhaps a hybrid of remote and in the office, that is unlikely to return to the five-day-a-week, in-office routine seen before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Employers typically have a plan they follow to prevent or handle slips, trips and falls in the workplace, but what happens when home is now the office and employees are injured while completing work-related tasks during “work hours” that no longer fit within the once-clearcut 9-5? As we report on page 8, work from home has fast become an issue that will hit employers and workers compensation insurers, with increased exposures and the likelihood of injuries among their chief concerns.
Each case needs to be evaluated individually, and workers comp laws differ by state, so investigating how an injury happened at home and whether workers comp benefits apply is likely to be more complex and time-consuming, especially if there are no witnesses.
Injured workers are likely to find it more difficult to prove their injury occurred in the course and scope of employment, and employers will have a harder time establishing whether a claim is genuine. Questions will also arise as to how the coming-and-going rule, which applies to workers who are injured in the course of a regular commute to and from the workplace, and which, with some exceptions, sets a pretty clear line that workers comp benefits do not apply during a typical commute, will respond. If there is good news for employers, it is that state lawmakers — Ohio in the first instance — are starting to put some parameters around what constitutes a work-related injury that occurs at home.
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As flexible work arrangements become the norm it’s not just the risks of slips, trips and falls that are concerning. A recent poll in the United Kingdom found working from home caused an increase in back problems among young adults, with two-thirds of 18- to 29-year-olds saying they suffered back pain during the pandemic. The poll also found that more than 20% said they worked from bed when at home, while one in six sat on a sofa.
If in-person ergonomic reviews of home office setups are a thing of the past, employers will have to find different ways to keep workers safe and to prevent repetitive stress injuries, such as carpal tunnel. As the future of work continues to shift, employers need to be prepared and ready to manage the risks. Fortunately, advances in technology and lessons learned during the pandemic should help.