Close Communication Critical to Ensuring Safety of Home Office Employees
While this move can help companies cut expenses, many legal experts also believe that it can open up a new level of liability. Employees who work from home fly under the radar of many businesses' health and safety programs. However, one ergonomics specialist believes employers should not let their guard down when it comes to employees who perform many of their duties outside of the traditional office environment.
"Many employees who are given the choice to work from home think it means they can pull their laptops up to the couch to do their job," said Cindy Roth, CEO of Ergonomic Technologies Corp. in Syosset, N.Y. "However, it should still be considered an office environment, and companies are responsible for the safety of those employees."
Roth said many home office workers likely face additional injury risks because they tend to work longer hours than their in-house counterparts.
"One of the biggest risk factors for many employees working from home is fatigue," she said. "It is often hard to separate home and work life, and many of these individuals put in 12 or 14 hour days. The longer and harder that they work, the more prone they will be to ergonomic issues. They are also often under greater stress."
What can employers do to ensure that these employees stay safe while working from home? Roth said it is critical that supervisors stay closely connected with these workers.
"First, I think someone from corporate needs to assist the employee in setting up a proper workstation," she said. "But it is very important not to isolate these employees. They need to be included in the corporate environment or they will get lost."
Free from injuries. To ensure the safety of their home office workers, Roth recommended employers:
- Routinely bring the employees back into the office. If possible, bring the person back into the office every six weeks or so. This not only allows you the opportunity to discuss safety issues, Roth said, it also enhances continuity and camaraderie.
- Offer home office workers access to all programs. Any program that is being offered on-site, including safety training and ergonomics assessments, must be offered to the home employee.
- Provide employees with education. Roth said it is important to provide at-home workers with the education and training they need to stay safe on the job. In addition to in-house programs, provide employees with a list of free, Web-based resources to help answer questions about the setup of their workstation. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration provides employers with a wealth of information on setting up and maintaining a proper workstation environment. Consider creating an informational packet for telecommuters that provides tips and resource links for common questions they may have about designing their home office.
- Encourage frequent breaks. "Our bodies break down when we work long hours without taking a break," Roth said. "It is important that home office workers know when to take a break and why, so that they will comply when their bodies feel tired."
Repetitive tasks, such as keyboarding or computer work, that require long periods of static posture may require several, short breaks. During these breaks, encourage employees to stand, stretch and move around. According to OSHA, this provides rest and gives muscles time to recover. Roth said workers shouldn't limit themselves to these short breaks. Once every couple of hours, home office workers should walk around for 10 to15 minutes.
- Provide home office workers with the right tools. If the person will be on the phone a lot, provide him with a headset. In addition, make sure the employee has access to a good, adjustable chair. Use or recommend the same tools that you would use when setting up a typical in-house workstation.
"From a corporate viewpoint, employers can save a lot of money by having home-based employees," Roth said. "If you can eliminate those costs in today's environment, that's a good thing. However, you don't want to lose the savings by transferring those costs to a workers' compensation claim."
July 6, 2009
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