Working from home is becoming increasingly popular in some businesses. But it’s also becoming increasingly clear that this practice can expose employers to greater risk of liability for employee injuries.
Employees love telecommuting, or telework, for the comfort and flexibility. Employers love it because of the lower overhead expenses. And everybody loves it because it keeps cars off the road, reduces traffic, and helps protect the environment.
But Catalina Avalos, director in the Fort Lauderdale, Florida, firm Tripp Scott, believes there may also be some dangers lurking in the work-at-home practice.
For example, you might expect that if employees work in their own homes, their health and safety is not your concern. But OSHA thinks differently. Avalos notes that OSHA categorizes the offices of employees who work at home as "home-based worksites."
Does this mean you should be out there inspecting workers’ home offices for safety hazards?
No, says Avalos. In fact, OSHA actually bars such inspections as a potential invasion of privacy.
But therein lies a Catch-22. Employees concerned that their home offices are unsafe can make specific complaints to OSHA, which will then contact the employer about the problem. If OSHA determines a real hazard, it has the authority to prohibit the employer from having employees work at home and/or it can fine the employer.
So the rules put you in a double bind. You can’t ensure safety in a home office, but you can be blamed for an accident. Not exactly fair or sensible.
Add to that the fact that if there is an accident that an employee feels is the employer’s responsibility, he or she can file a civil lawsuit for damages and/or file a claim for workers’ compensation.
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As you can see, an arrangement that seems simple and mutually beneficial on the surface can have underlying risks that you should be aware of.
Avalos advises employers to ask all work-at-home employees, even if they are only at home 1 or 2 days a week, to describe what their workspaces are like and whether they have any concerns or special requests.
OSHA requires employees to disclose potential hazards in their home offices. Even though this rule is difficult to enforce, the question is still well worth asking, Avalos believes.
She also notes that employers should be aware that telework situations may intersect with needs under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires reasonable accommodation.
Policy a Must
"If the work-at-home employee decides to go downstairs and make a sandwich at lunchtime, and he slips and falls down the stairs, the employer probably isn’t liable, nor is the injury covered by workers’ comp," says Avalos.
But Avalos warns that because workers’ compensation laws are state specific, there are no absolutely clear answers that apply across the board. This is why she stresses the importance of creating a written policy for work-at-home situations.
Not only should your policy restrict responsibility to injuries that happen in the home office, it should also clearly state that it is restricted to times when the employee is performing authorized work.
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