As offices and workplaces begin to reopen after COVID-19 lockdowns, many workers will continue to work remotely at least part of the time. While assessing continued work-from-home arrangements or preparing for a hybrid workforce, organizations must take steps to ensure workers’ safety and effectiveness in remote work settings.
Those working at home are most often engaged in online computer tasks, likely using company-owned equipment. While employers generally judge these types of arrangements as low-risk or inherently “safe,” the reality is that home-based work is rife with risks of injury. These risks could easily become workers compensation claims that can impact profits and productivity. The same risks seen in on-site office settings apply to remote workers, including: sprains, strains and cumulative micro-trauma in the upper extremities; slips, trips and falls; eye strain; lower-back injuries and other injuries related to both accidents and ergonomics. Unengaged and uncoached workers tend to be more prone to accident and injury—and have higher turnover rates.
The primary driver of work-related risk in the home environment is employers evaluating their employees primarily on work output, without giving adequate attention to their day-to-day physical safety and mental engagement. Employers who provide additional support tend to be rewarded with a healthier and happier staff that works with enhanced mindfulness, higher productivity and increased loyalty. If an injury occurs, these employers also enjoy a better claims experience and better claim outcomes.
To effectively approach keeping remote workers safe and engaged, here are some practical, low-cost techniques to implement:
1. Set the tone. To effectively impact behavior, safety must start at the top. Leadership should lay out a clear vision of the company’s commitment to safety and health for all workers, no matter their location. This vision should include adherence to documented work policies and expectations, including safe work practices for working remotely.
2. Implement a work-from-home safety checklist. Home environments are potentially more cramped and unorganized than office workspaces and can present unique safety hazards. Employees may go about their duties in areas that are not designed for it, such as working from a couch while unmanaged extension cords, children’s toys and pets create risks. A work-from-home safety checklist can both educate and remind employees about best practices. Such a checklist could include:
- Checking for proper lighting, clear walkways free of hazards, power outlets that are not overloaded, comfortable temperatures and limited noise.
- Establishing comfortable seating and desk height and allowing for proper ergonomic support, computer monitors positioned for visual comfort and less neck strain, and adequate leg space under the desk.
- Employees should be encouraged to take breaks every 30 minutes and stand at least once every hour.
- Keeping employees updated on team activities, tasks and training via frequent phone calls, videoconferencing or instant messaging. Emergency contact lists should also be readily available.
Some form of home inspection could help ensure these practices are being followed. Consider whether this will be a self-inspection by the employee of their own office space or conducted in person by the employer’s representative. Also, consider the frequency at which the home inspection will be repeated because things change over time. Depending on the jurisdiction, human resources or legal experts can aid in these decisions.
3. Engage with technology. Use technology to your advantage for messaging and training. Custom screen savers can help continually reinforce concepts, from cybersecurity best practices to reminders about ergonomic postures and taking breaks. Additionally, transmit safety materials and positive safety messaging regularly, such as every payday or every Monday morning. Safe behavior hinges as much on a mindset of safety as it does on technical instructions. Short and simple messages administered frequently can be more effective than longer, less frequent presentations of technical material. Change the messaging and graphics regularly to keep things fresh. Your insurance carriers and agent can provide formal training material or lighter, reminder-type content. The bottom line is to use whatever tools you have available to keep safe behavior an important part of each day.
4. Out of sight should not mean out of mind. Engage with frequent, structured contact. Set meetings by screen or phone to match or exceed what took place in the office environment. These meetings not only increase mental engagement but also provide valuable opportunities to discuss safety and keep morale high. You can discuss work assignments and any issues with equipment, workspaces or other wellness matters.
To keep the mood light and friendly while also defusing the stress of a demanding workplace, use these meetings as catch-up calls with staff, sharing social topics like weekend activities and personal updates to keep the mood light and friendly while also defusing the stress of a demanding workplace. For larger group meetings, you can also solicit written praise from managers and recognize colleagues for doing things well, including small courtesies like helping someone out, getting something completed early, recommending a safety improvement and so on.
Over time, this allows individuals to feel empowered and build meaningful connections with the group. Problems are resolved before they take on a life of their own, which boosts morale and productivity. Emphasizing the health of both the team and each individual and prioritizing their safety and well-being better enables teams to perform at a high level.
5. Discuss insurance coverages for home-based staff with your agent or broker. In addition to workers compensation, review other types of business liabilities. For example, is proper insurance in place if a client sustains an injury while visiting an employee at their home? Will business assets and equipment at an employee’s home be covered in the event of loss? Remember, commercial business insurance may not cover remote locations. Some employers require employees to provide evidence of homeowners or renters insurance to assure that property protection is in place while work equipment is in use or work activity is in progress. Employers should prepare to reimburse this business expense or obtain relevant coverage for employees. Setting aside time to review all contingencies with your insurance agent will help you avoid any surprises.