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Safe on the home front

July 1, 2011

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Protecting the health and safety of teleworkers

KEY POINTS
  • Because teleworkers primarily are engaged in office work, they face many of the same hazards as office workers: slips, trips and falls; ergonomic issues; and fire hazards.
  • Studies indicate that most teleworkers do not receive safety training from their organization, including how to set up an ergonomically ideal workstation or create an emergency plan.
  • Incorporating training and home work space safety checklists into your organization's telework policy is recommended to protect the safety and health of teleworkers.

By Lauretta Claussen, associate editor

When violent snowstorms ravaged the Washington, D.C., area in the winter of 2010, conditions were so precarious that workers were unable to safely navigate roadways, prompting a near weeklong shutdown of the federal government. Although officials estimated the government would lose $100 million per day as a result of the forced shutdown, the actual numbers were 30 percent less. The reason? Telework.

Even though employees were not able to get to the office, many had all the tools they needed to effectively perform their jobs from their own homes. Technologies such as personal computers, broadband connection and smartphones helped employees continue to work while away from the job.

This realization prompted the government to look more closely at telework. In December 2010, President Barack Obama signed the Telework Enhancement Act (H.R. 1722), which required government agencies to establish a policy on working outside the office and identify which employees would be eligible to do so. The act also required government agencies to incorporate a telework program into their emergency plans for natural disasters or other emergencies.

Benefits of telework

Although the majority of organizations are interested in telework for the same reason the federal government is – business continuity – experts contend that a telework policy can be greatly beneficial in situations other than emergencies.

Cindy Auten, general manger of the Alexandria, VA-based Telework Exchange, suggests that incorporating a successful telework program into standard operations would make the transition smoother and easier during an emergency situation.

“That’s what we encourage because you’ll start to see some of these organizational benefits if you have teleworkers working more, rather than just on a situational basis,” she said. 

Some of those benefits include:

Reduced employee costs – Chuck Wilsker is the president and CEO of the Washington-based Telework Coalition, a nonprofit education and advocacy organization. Wilsker estimates that the average employee would save $8,000 per year with telework in the form of gas costs, wear and tear on a vehicle, tolls, and parking costs.

Employer costs – “The average organization that takes full-time office employees and lets them work from home full time will save an average of $20,000 per year, per employee,” Wilsker said. The cost reduction comes in the form of large expenses such as real estate and utilities, as well as smaller items such as toilet paper and water coolers.

Access to a larger, younger workforce – Telework allows employers to draw workers from around the globe. Auten noted that because telework is so commonly used on college campuses, younger generations who grew up with Internet access and online networking may demand it.

Creating opportunities for disabled workers – “Half of the physically disabled people in the United States are unemployed, and the No. 1 reason they are is transportation issues,” Wilsker said. “Well, guess what? If you work from home, you eliminate transportation issues.”

Worker safety – Regardless of industry, with few exceptions, the most dangerous thing workers do all day is drive to and from work. According to the 2011 edition of the National Safety Council’s “Injury Facts,” nearly 36,000 traffic fatalities occurred in 2009. Keeping workers off the road can be especially beneficial during inclement weather or other unsafe driving situations. “If [organizations] are using telework as part of business continuity, they can let their employees know they don’t have to, for their own safety, drive into the office,” Auten said.

Safety concerns

Wilsker said that although he has heard a number of reasons why organizations do not want to implement telework, worker safety has never been among them. But for safety professionals, the question remains: How can they protect workers they cannot see?

OSHA does not conduct home office inspections, nor does the agency require employers to do so. OSHA does, however, hold employers liable for hazards caused by equipment, materials or work processes provided or required by the employer. Employers that are required by law to record work-related injuries and illnesses must maintain such a record for teleworkers.

Because the majority of teleworkers predominantly are engaged in office work, safety concerns they face often include standard office hazards: ergonomics problems; fires; slips, trips and falls; and air quality. However, because these workplaces also are personal homes, workers may become lax about mitigating these hazards.

Ergonomics hazards – Susan Harrington, president of the Telework Learning Center in Fairfax, VA, collected data on the health of teleworkers from 2003 to 2006 and found ergonomics problems to be a primary concern. Among teleworkers who participated in the study, 38 percent reported work-related discomfort, soreness or pain – most commonly in the back, wrists, neck and shoulder. Those who teleworked more days per week were more likely to experience such pain.

Fires – According to the Quincy, MA-based National Fire Protection Association, between 2003 and 2006, an estimated 690 home fires reported by municipal fire departments were related to office equipment. Although workers often practice fire drills in the workplace, fewer perform such drills in their home. More than half of the participants in Harrington’s study did not have a home disaster plan.

Slips, trips and falls – The risk of tripping on items such as boxes or cords in an office setting can increase in a home environment. Children’s play things or pets present additional tripping hazards.

Air quality – Wilsker pointed out that many home offices are located in basements, which are especially susceptible to radon. Also, cleaning supplies and other chemicals often are stored in basements, which can be hazardous over time. “It’s fine when you go down there to do your laundry,” he said, “but if you’re going to be breathing it eight or 10 hours a day, you might not want to do that.”

Establishing a program

When creating a telework program, it is essential for employers to determine which workers should be eligible to work remotely. Although some positions – such as security guards – require an employee’s physical presence in the work area, many others have at least some potential for telework.

Auten uses medical professions as an example. Physically seeing patients is an obvious requirement of the job, but other tasks such as paperwork and reporting could be performed off-site, she said.

Auten said that it is important for employers and employees to create a telework plan that is mutually beneficial, noting that telework does not have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. “A lot of times we see a part-time telework option – two or three days a week,” she said. “It is almost the most optimal for a lot of industries because you still have face-to-face client interactions and you can be with team members, but you don’t necessarily have to drive in every day.”

Experts recommend that safety training be a critical component of any telework policy. In Harrington’s study, after receiving safety training, 66 percent of teleworkers made changes to their home office or work habits, and many reported feeling less work-related discomfort as a result. Yet despite this apparent need for training, 82 percent of study participants reported that they had received no initial teleworker safety training from their employer.

In conjunction with training, Wilsker and several others recommend that employers supply workers with a comprehensive safety checklist when starting a telework program. “When you’re in an office, you have somebody who takes a look to make sure that the circuits aren’t overloaded, to make sure that there are no fire hazards, to make sure there are no dangerous chemicals, to make sure there aren’t things left out that you can fall over,” he said. “But when you’re home, you need to do it yourself, and to do it, you need a checklist.”

Many organizations, such as Telework!VA and the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, offer sample checklists that employers can customize for the particular needs of their workforce. These completed checklists can be accompanied by digital images of the home office so employers can assess and address any potential hazards that may be present.

Auten noted that it is important for teleworkers to have a specific work area in their home, rather than simply working on the couch or from the kitchen table. “They should have a dedicated work space,” she said. “This helps, I think, from a safety standpoint – you’re not moving anything in the work space, you’ve got everything in one location.”

Beyond simply assessing the safety of employees’ home work spaces, telework policies should cover liability issues, according to Telework!VA, including who is responsible for purchasing office equipment, who is liable if equipment needs to be replaced or repaired, and how the organization will handle reporting non-work-related injuries.

As with any effective safety program, communication between employers and employees is critical. CCOHS points to the importance of daily communication between employees to eliminate any hazards that may be associated with working alone. The agency also urges employers to encourage telework employees to report incidents and injuries in the same way they would if they were in the office.

Trends

How do I know they're working?
Regardless of the benefits touted by proponents of telework, many organizations remain resistant to implementing such a change.

Although telework has been increasing in recent years, “it’s a lot slower than we’d like to see,” Wilsker said. “But I know that the number of people doing this is going to spike tremendously.”

Telework!VA was formed in 2005. Auten noted that at that time, employers considered telework a nice benefit, but did not see it as critical to an organization’s operations. But she agrees that times are changing. “Since then, we’ve probably seen what we would call a ‘perfect storm’ of factors,” she said.

This “storm” included a series of emergency and weather-related office shutdowns, health pandemics, worsening traffic patterns, and increasing fuel costs.

She believes telework will be more accepted in the not-so-distant future, noting that managers who generally have the biggest issues with telework are the ones who have never been exposed to it.

“What we found is that as managers became more exposed to telework, their attitudes toward the telework changed favorably,” she said. “And when they teleworked themselves, they really saw the benefit of it. So it’s really an educational opportunity to get managers on-board in understanding that this isn’t just a ‘nice to have’ – it’s really critical and can help your employees do their job.”

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