How Does Worker’s Comp Address Work From Home Injuries?
Since Spring of 2020, most organizations have allowed some or all employees to work from home (WFH). Even as pandemic restrictions are lifted, and people return to their worksites, it is likely that employers will continue certain WFH situations. This may be to accommodate vulnerable workers or as part of a hybrid model that will reduce the number of employees in a shared workspace. Employees in the hybrid model may alternate office days with WFH days. Regardless of logistics for specific organizations and sites, WFH is part of the “new normal.” Employers must understand how to assess and respond to reports of on-the-job injuries sustained while working from home.
Let’s look at some of the issues employers should consider if an employee claims an injury while working from home. Most relate to time, place or circumstance of the injury in relation to employment.
What was the time of the injury?
Does the employee have specific work hours? If so, did the injury occur within those hours? If not, can the employee show he or she was engaged in work activities? Was the employee on call?
Is the employee expected to follow a specific routine each workday, with duties, requirements and deadlines? If so, was he or she fulfilling any of these when the incident occurred? Was the task a required one?
What was the place of the injury?
For workers compensation purposes during COVID-19 WFH, the home will generally be considered part of the employer’s premises for determining eligibility for compensation. If the employee has a particular part of the home set up as an office, it may be easier to define a work area.
What was the circumstance of the injury?
How did it happen? Was the employee preparing to perform a task for the employer? Was he or she using any tools provided by the employer? If the injury was suffered while the employee engaged in a purely personal activity at home, it will not likely be covered. But, if it was part of a set of activities that had both employment and personal connection, so-called dual purpose activities, it may be considered for compensation.
Jean, a WFH employee, leaves her desk to retrieve printer paper to print work documents. While walking to a different part of the home to get the paper, she trips over a cord and suffers an injury. This is likely to be a successful claim because the need to print work documents was an employment activity and the reason for the activity that led to her injury.
Sam, another WFH employee, gets up to take a break from work and do a load of laundry. Carrying the hamper en route to the basement laundry room, he falls down the stairs and is injured. This is likely NOT a worker’s comp case, because Sam’s purely personal need to do laundry was the reason for the activity.
Robin, working from home, gets up from her desk to retrieve a ream of printer paper from the hall closet to print work documents. In the hall, she grabs a hamper filled with clean laundry and tosses the paper into it. On the way back to her desk, she trips over a wire and is injured. This is likely to be a compensated situation: Both the need to print work documents and the need to retrieve the clean laundry were reasons for the activity, but because at least part of the reason was employment-related, the injury may be compensated.
But is it a disability?
Realistically, most of the people able to work from home during the pandemic are working at computers. These are relatively sedentary jobs. Even if the employee suffers a compensated injury while working from home, it is unlikely to be disabling because work duties likely consist of computer work only. If this is the case, a claim for injury might be denied because the injury is not disabling.
How do we deal with WFH injury claims?
It is very difficult to assess WFH injury claims because documentation will be scant or non-existent and there may be no contemporaneous medical record. Employers should report the claim as soon as it is received so that the insurance adjuster can make a timely investigation and conduct a thorough interview with the employee. The information to be gathered will include what time the injury occurred, where in the home it happened, whether the employee has a dedicated workspace, and exactly what activity the employee was doing at the time of the injury.
Can we prevent WFH injury claims?
If employers continue to allow staff to work remotely, a clear policy must be developed and disseminated and employees should sign it. It should include:
- A WFH safety survey and checklist of the WFH space dedicated to the job. Setting aside a specific space will minimize the likelihood of injury claims and encourage the employee to set boundaries at home to motivate productivity. Include a requirement for a photo of the space, to be updated every six months.
- Proof that the employee’s homeowner’s or rental policy is up-to-date.
- Regular interaction with the IT department to ensure all employee devices are protected from intrusion. Make sure that any connection to the organization’s network is established by an IT professional.
- If possible, set regular work hours, including time for breaks.
- Regular communication with the main office to monitor work.
- While WFH may have been a requirement in the early days of the pandemic, it will be more of a perk and privilege in the days ahead. Employees who fail to meet the specified safety and security requirements may be asked to return to the office.
Work from Home can be a win-win situation. Employers and managers who insist on safety and security will be more comfortable offering WFH to workers. Employees will have fewer injury claims if they are formally reminded of the organization’s safety policies.