Working Remotely – The Workplace Safety Perspective

 

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As a faint light appears at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel, more employers are asking themselves whether they wish to maintain remote working arrangements, indefinitely.  This is no easy question to answer.

It appears that many employees have gotten accustomed to working from home and that not everyone will want to return to the workplace on a daily basis.  From the employer’s perspective, however, I’ve seen recent information indicating that employees may be more than 20% less efficient when working from home.

I haven’t heard many employers (or employment lawyers) addressing the workplace health and safety implications of employees working remotely. 

When the pandemic really slammed our province back in March, and workplaces urgently shut down and/or went partially or fully remote, my sense was that most employers weren’t all that conscious or concerned about the workers compensation aspects of that temporary arrangement.  I’m not suggesting that employers ignored it entirely, but my sense is that the workplace health and safety implications of having employees working at home weren’t “top of mind” in that moment.

Here we are, 9 months later, many employees are still working from home, and employers are now confronting the workers compensation implications of that arrangement. 

It is important to understand, first of all, that home workplaces aren’t exempt from the impact of B.C.’s Workers Compensation Act.  Every location from which work is done is a workplace as far as WorkSafeBC is concerned, and that means that workers compensation rules apply to home-based work settings.

Working From Home – Health and Safety Policy

Employers must ensure the health and safety of their workers when they work from home.  So, the first thing employers must do is develop a basic health and safety policy for working from home, and ensure that each affected party understands their role, duties, and responsibilities.

At minimum, that policy must require employees to conduct an assessment of their home workplace and to report any hazards to their employer.  According to WorkSafeBC, examples of some other factors to consider in the health and safety policy policy include…

  • ergonomic considerations,
  • protocols for evacuating from the home to a safe location if needed and how to contact the employer in case of emergency, and
  • discussion of safe workplace practices and how to report any work-related incidents or injuries.

Health and Safety Requirements When Working From Home

WorkSafeBC has indicated that many health and safety roles, rights, and responsibilities are just as applicable for at-home workers as they are for more traditional workplaces, including…

  • reporting workplace injuries,
  • requirements for education and training,
  • the worker’s duty to follow safe work procedures, and
  • check-in and other communication requirements if the worker is working alone or in isolation.

According to WorkSafeBC, some health and safety requirements may need to be administered in different ways for at-home staff.  The role of the worker’s supervisor will need to be outlined and ergonomic assessments will need to be performed and control measures implemented.  Other specific factors to be considered for at-home workers include the physical environment (asbestos, mould, tobacco smoke, etc.), electrical safety, risk of slips/trips/falls, violence, and working alone. 

How the employer will follow up on reported incidents will also require special consideration in advance of any work being done from a residence.

What Does This Mean For Us?

The practical reality is that when your business allows employees to work from home, it is creating satellite workplaces, each of which is equally governed by B.C.’s workers compensation and occupational health and safety requirements. 

Ensuring that these requirements have been met for each satellite workplace is the obligation of the employer.  Doing so may pose a significant administrative and cost burden which many employers are unwilling to assume.  Failing to do so could have very expensive consequences in the event of an accident or injury.

The cost burden on employers may also include duplication of tools and equipment, investment in secure wifi access and file protection, modifications of personal information protection polices and practices, and innumerable other adjustments to facilitate working remotely.  From the employer’s perspective, it’s just not as simple as telling someone to “stay home and stay safe”.

These are definitely factors to keep in mind when discussing whether employees are all soon going to return to the workplace.  The employees may not like the outcome, but for many employers returning to having a single, manageable, controllable workplace may be the only logical choice.

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This item is provided for general information purposes only and is not intended to be relied upon as legal advice. Informed legal advice should always be obtained about your specific circumstances.

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