Work from home, for many of us, has become the "new normal", as part of the effort to slow the progression of COVID-19 through physical distancing. The new "working-from-home economy", which is likely to continue long past the pandemic, has also brought forth new health and safety challenges for employers.
In many jurisdictions, employers should understand that an employee's home may be considered an extension of the workplace, if the home is where the employee is engaged in work for his or her employer. In those jurisdictions, requirements and duties set out in occupational health and safety statutes may apply, including general duty clauses, which require employers to take every reasonable precaution for the protection of workers. In other jurisdictions, like Ontario, the answer is less clear. In Ontario, the definition of a "workplace" is broad enough to cover a worker working at home. However, the Occupational Health and Safety Act of Ontario (OHSA) states it does not apply to work performed by the owner, occupant, or their servant in or about a private residence. To make matters more complicated, there is limited case law interpreting this exemption and no meaningful guidance from the regulator. In Ontario, even if the OHSA does not apply, it may be best to take a risk management approach to health and safety to ensure workers are not exposed to uncontrolled hazards while working at home.
Employers should consider reasonable steps to ensure the health and safety of workers that work from home in both types of jurisdictions. Reasonable steps may include implementation of a "Work from Home" (or Telecommuting) Policy and Program, that includes the following measures and procedures:
A Workspace Assessment
Develop a Work from Home/Telecommuting Safety Checklist for workers to assess their workspace and forward a copy to their manager. Any hazards or concerns identified during the assessment should be discussed with the worker's supervisor, so that measures to control these hazards can be implemented.
Provide workers with information and instruction on setting up their home office. This may include but not be limited to the following:
- Avoid working from couches or other soft surfaces that do not have a stable work surface and lack support for your back.
- When possible, position your computer so windows are beside you, and not in front or behind you. Use options such as blinds or curtains to control glare and reduce risk for eyestrain.
- Make sure to follow good housekeeping practices – clean and clutter free surfaces, electrical cords in good condition and properly positioned, safe storage of heavy or sharp items – in order to reduce the risk of common household and office injuries and illnesses.
- As well as scheduled breaks, get up and move around periodically. Frequent micro (very short) breaks throughout the day are important for both physical and mental health.
- If you have an adjustable chair, adjust all features to support your back, thighs, and be at a comfortable height. If you do not have an adjustable chair, use folded towels or cushions as needed for extra padding and back support.
- Position monitor/laptop screen approximately arms' length away from you.
- Use a footrest, box, or something sturdy to support your feet, so they are not stretching to reach the floor or causing you to perch on the front edge of your chair.
Incident Reporting Protocols
Develop and implement reporting protocols to address incidents that occur when a worker is working from home (or remotely). Workers should receive instruction to immediately report, to their manager, any incident or other occurrence arising in the course of, or in connection with their work, that has caused or is likely to cause an injury.
Depending on the jurisdiction, employers should investigate these incidents and if necessary, notify the joint health and safety committee. Depending on the nature of the incident (e.g. serious injury, critical injury), external parties may need to be notified (i.e. OHS regulator or, if applicable, your provincial worker's compensation board).
For more information on this topic and related resources, contact the author.