MATTHEW BRODSKY, senior editor/Web editor of Risk & Insurance®.
A 31-year-old engineer at Raytheon was in a motor-vehicle accident and broke his hip, heal and wrist bones in multiple places. The accident left him needing a wheelchair and unable to adequately use his dominant hand.
The recovery was lengthy, and only after the pain subsided and the man regained full use of his hand did the employee, site nurse, a vendor nurse and Raytheon's loss-time intervention team sit down and talk accommodation options. His supervisor was brought into the discussion, as well as the treating provider.
The accommodation option that was chosen: full-time telecommute from home for one full month.
Having an overall virtual workforce policy can have so many benefits for employers. For a small but growing number of organizations, telework also is starting to have an effect on their disability management and return-to-work programs.
Enough experience and insight already exist on the topic to come up with best practices for disability management and the virtual workforce. That at least was the goal of the 2011 Think Tank held by the Disability Management Employer Coalition in March in Newport Beach, Calif.
Raytheon Co. was one participant at the event. The aerospace firm has used flexible work arrangements to transition employees back from medical leave for many years.
"We want to use the virtual workplace as a best practice for return-to-work and accommodation," Robert Rucker, manager of short- and long-term disability for Raytheon, told his peers around the Think Tank table.
For instance, virtual working could serve as an accommodation for a disabled employee such as the engineer, or as a way to keep someone from going off on medical leave completely. An employee diagnosed with cancer, say, who is undergoing weeks of chemotherapy treatments.
"How can telework help that employee stay productive?" Debi Horvath, absence management consultant at Raytheon, asked rhetorically.
Raytheon's overall policy on flexible work arrangements takes into account that telework does not make sense for all positions--say, someone working on the factory floor. A formal agreement must be made between an employee, the manager and human resources before a flexible work arrangement is put into place, with supervisors having the ultimate say whether the arrangement fits (and the employee deserves it based on performance).
GlaxoSmithKline, another DMEC Think Tank participant, also brings together its disability management program and its remote work policies. On occasion, Mary Bannan, nurse case manager of safety and performance at Glaxo, said disabled or injured workers have worked from home in an accommodation when suitable.
"We've done a pretty good job of educating managers around flexible work options that are medically related," Bannan told her Think Tank peers.
Overall, as many as one in three of Glaxo's 18,000 U.S. workers telecommute, an impressive number even when you consider that field sales staff is included there.
This all is not to say it's simple to use work-from-home as an accommodation. Employers might wonder what regulatory hurdles they'd have to jump over for the Americans With Disabilities Act Amendments Act. As noted in the soon-to-be-released white paper produced by the Disability Management Employer Coalition out of the Think Tank, employers are not required by the ADAAA to offer telework as an accommodation.
On the flip side, however, if an employer has a general telecommute policy, it must give its disabled employees an equal opportunity to enjoy it as any employee would. When it comes to using telework as an accommodation for disabled workers, it is not clear if employers would have to waive telework policy eligibility requirements.
Let's get back to the positive, though. A telework policy can also be--and is recommended by the Think Tank to be--intertwined within a company's safety program. Again, follow the lead of Glaxo.
Bannan said how certified occupational health nurses are employed by the drug maker to promote injury prevention among its population of telecommuters. Safety topics like lifting technique are promoted through company e-learning courses. The company put in place driver safety policies for its field sales professionals.
For home offices, the employer provides ergonomic assessments, done either in person by safety personnel or over the telephone, and is in the process of putting together an ergonomic toolkit.
Interestingly enough, regulators in Great Britain, Glaxo's home country, mandate that it provide safety and ergonomic equipment to remote workers there. No such requirement exists in the United States. So why do it?
"We are embedding a culture of safety within our entire population," Bannan said.
As you can hear trumpeted at a Disability Management Employer Coalition event or any conference about workers' compensation, creating that culture of safety is a huge step toward reducing injuries and controlling the costs of comp claims. Then again, nothing might be able to prevent all accidents and injuries on the worksite.
That raises an intriguing question: What happens when that worksite is an employee's home?
Very few court rulings exist to help answer that question. One happened in 2007 when the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled on a case involving a teleworker who was attacked at home while making lunch (Wait v. Travelers).
A more recent case was decided by the Oregon Court of Appeals, involving a JCPenney telecommuter who broke her wrist by tripping over her dog while working from her house.
In both cases, said Jim Pocius, a shareholder in the Scranton, Pa., law office of Marshall, Dennehey, Warner, Coleman & Goggin, the courts had to determine if the injuries arose out of as well as occurred in the course of employment.
In the Oregon case, the court decided that the employee, who tripped on her way to the garage where work items were stored, was more like a traveling employee on an employer assignment. She was furthering her employer's business when she tripped over the dog, Pocius said. Workers' compensation benefits granted.
In the Tennessee case, Pocius said, the court found that the injury occurred in the course of employment like an injury in an office break-room would, but decided that it didn't arise out of employment. The catch here was a specific Tennessee rule that says assaults on the job arising out of "street risk" do not arise out of employment. No benefits here.
"You can see the court struggling in both of these cases trying to make rules that fit the modern society," Pocius said.
One reason that so few instances of work-related injuries have made it to the courts in disputes is that perhaps work-related injuries in the home office aren't reported as such and instead find their way into the group health system, according to authors of the DMEC white paper.
There is also the gray area of working from afar: How can you know exactly when a telecommuting employee is on or off the clock?
Pocius suggested another reason: Teleworkers might get injured less.
In any case, when testing the telework waters for themselves, employers can lean upon strong policies already in place for disability and absence management, such as the best practices that can be found in the Disability Management Employer Coalition Think Tank white paper.
Ultimately, perhaps the best practice of all is to follow the best practices already in place for "regular" workers.
As Marcia Carruthers, CEO of the disability coalition, reiterated to the Think Tank participants, "Once again, tried and true principles of good disability and absence management programs come into play, whether the person is virtual or not. We can draw from our past experience, knowledge and best practices and apply them in new ways."
August 1, 2011
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