When COVID-19 spread across the U.S., office spaces quickly shuttered as nonessential workers were asked to stay home in order to slow the spread of the virus.

Telecommuting was already on the rise, having increased 173% between 2005 and 2018, according to Global Workplace Analytics. Companies that already had employees working from home likely already had a well-defined work-from-home policy, but the sudden change in the traditional workplace structure in 2020 had many other companies scrambling to implement proper telecommuting infrastructure, technology, and procedures.

With regard to workers’ compensation, an employee’s injury or illness is usually compensable if it arises out of and in the course of employment, regardless of the location where the injury occurs. Therefore, telecommuters are typically covered under workers’

(as of 09/01/2020)

*Based on the Bureau of Labor Statistics definition of size of company based on number of employees.

compensation in the same manner as on-site employees, as long as the injury or illness occurred while completing a task during working hours. The rapid increase in at-home workers has altered workers’ compensation risks for many employers, who are now tasked with mitigating risks related to ventilation, tripping, fire, and even sharp corners. Some experts are concerned that musculoskeletal injuries will increase due to a rapid increase in telecommuters in workspaces not ergonomically compliant (for example, lacking an ergonomic keyboard or chair).

According to an April 2020 Gartner survey, 17% of 317 financial leaders surveyed said that 20% of their employees would continue telecommuting permanently after the pandemic ends. Experts predict that the increase in telecommuting in 2020 and beyond will permanently alter the safety risk profile of many companies.

In fact, beginning January 1, 2021, the Workers’ Compensation Insurance Rating Bureau of California implemented a new class code to track injury and accident data for employees who spend “more than 50% of their time performing clerical duties from a clerical work area located within their home.” This 8871 Clerical Telecommuter Employees code is new in California but is already used in the 38 other states where the National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI) is the rating bureau.

The outcomes of most telecommuters’ workers’ compensation injury cases have varied based on different state statutes and the specific details, but most litigation seeks to determine if the injury occurred during the course of employment. This is important for substantiating workers’ compensation benefits. Basic considerations include:

  • Did the employer approve the off-site work?
  • Was the employer benefiting from the employee’s actions when the injury occurred?
  • Did the employer require the employee to engage in the activity that caused the injury?

Though it’s not a simple task for companies to ensure that their at-home employees’ workspaces are safe, it’s critical they do what they can to mitigate risks, such as supplying ergonomic equipment wherever possible and establishing a comprehensive telecommuting policy.

A telecommuting policy should define job duties, provide guidelines for designated workspaces, and outline clear expectations. It may be prudent to create videos or visuals demonstrating proper home office configuration, including an ergonomic workspace and correct electrical setup. Additionally, with all the technology available today, it may be possible and practical for some employers to evaluate their employees’ workspaces through video conferencing.

Commonly, employees working remotely may be inclined to work longer hours with fewer breaks than they would in a regular office setting, which may lead to more ergonomic injuries. Therefore, policies should define working hours, meal times, and rest breaks, which can help the employer establish whether an injury occurred arising out of and during the course of employment.

Virtual ergonomics is an area that’s gaining traction and shows great promise in offering companies risk management with regard to a telecommuting workforce. Through this, a certified ergonomics professional provides training and a risk assessment of an employee’s workspace via video conference. Virtual evaluation software can provide personalized recommendations to help employees self-assess and correct problematic workstation setup, modify unhealthy body mechanics, and adjust or replace unsafe equipment.

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