While telecommuting is not a new phenomenon, the recent tidal wave of employees shifting to remote working is. Working from home has become commonplace since the advent of the coronavirus pandemic, with estimates predicting that over 36 million Americans will be working remotely by 2025.
The workplace is changing.
While our work locations may be changing, our work protections do not. Laws regarding workplace safety and employee rights all still apply. So while the laws remain the same, how does the new home environment redefine what these look like?
What is a “workplace injury” when you work at home?
Workers’ Compensation covers injuries that happen “at work.” Historically, work-related injuries (such as back strain from heavy lifting or carpal tunnel from overuse) and other accidental injuries (such as burning your hand on the coffee pot or tripping down stairs) have all been covered because it is the responsibility of your employer to provide a safe work environment.
But what about at home? Is your employer required to keep you safe while working in your own home?
Is Workers’ Compensation really going to pay if you burn your hand on your own coffee pot or if you trip down your own stairs?
It just might. Keep reading.
How Do You Define a “Work-Related Injury” at Home?
Before we can define a “work-related injury” at home, we first have to define a “work-related injury.”
New Hampshire law defines a work-related injury as an “accidental injury or death…or any occupational disease or resulting death arising out of and in the course of employment.”
The key words here are “arising out of and in the course of employment.”
“Arising out of” refers to the employee’s ACTIONS (what they were doing) when they were injured, and “in the course of” refers to the SETTING (time, place, and circumstances) of the injury. A work-related injury must be the result of a job-related activity during work hours.
This phrase also includes the “personal comfort doctrine,” which says that certain personal activities for the employee’s comfort (bathroom breaks, eating/drinking, rest breaks) are deemed necessary and therefore are considered part of their work activity. According to the personal comfort doctrine, a slip-and-fall in the employee bathroom or an injury during an on-site lunch break would still be covered under Workers’ Comp.
Now that we’ve defined a “work-related injury,” what about the “at home” part?
Remember that location does not matter in Workers’ Compensation. An office employee who is injured while out running errands for work still qualifies for benefits since their injury was “arising out of and in the course of employment.” The same goes for remote workers. If you are injured at home while performing your job, then that injury qualifies for Workers’ Comp. coverage.
Some injuries are clearly work-related. Cutting yourself on a paper cutter, burning yourself on a hot-glue gun, or developing carpal tunnel from repetitive movement can all happen at home while performing your work duties the same as they can happen at an office. These are not likely to be disputed.
But what about those “personal comfort doctrine” activities? If I trip on the rug in my hall while getting up for a snack, should that be covered? These are gray areas that need the help of a Workers’ Compensation attorney. While you are not guaranteed to have these types of injuries covered, they are definitely worth pursuing.
A Couple Examples
In 2002, a Verizon employee who worked from home two days per week sustained a neck injury when she fell down her basement stairs in a hurry to answer a call on her work phone. (She had gone upstairs to get a drink from the kitchen.) The resulting injury put her out of work for a year and left her with a visible scar from surgery. Workers’ Compensation covered her lost wages for time out of work, paid all of her medical bills, and awarded an additional sum for her permanent scaring.
Mary Sandberg was a decorator for JC Penney who worked out of her home and car, traveling to clients’ houses with fabric samples to sell custom window treatments and other home décor. Part of her job included keeping current fabric samples in her car and storing the extra samples in her detached garage. One day, as she stepped out of her house headed to the garage to swap out the samples from her car, she stepped on her dog, resulting in a fall and an arm injury. Her initial claim for Workers’ Comp. was denied, but she won her appeal in 2011 when the Oregon Court of Appeals found that she was injured in the course of her employment. The court ruling stated “If claimant tripped over a dog and injured herself while meeting with a customer in the customer’s home, her injury would arise out of her employment. The same is true here because claimant was where she was, doing what she was, because of the requirements of her employment.”
What Should I Do If I’m Injured While Working at Home?
So what should you do if you are injured while working at home? Regardless if it is an obvious work injury or a more questionable trip-and-fall injury, if it happened while you were working, be sure to report it. Compose an email to your boss detailing the injury and the circumstances in which it happened. Feel free to follow up with a phone call, but the email will provide a valuable record of communication.
From there, your boss should start the process of filing the proper paperwork with their insurance provider and the Department of Labor. Take pictures and make sure all details are written down. Memories can fail, so it’s important to record things right at the beginning. It’s better to document something and not need it later than to not record something that ended up being valuable. And in the home environment where there are no witnesses, documentation and details become even more important.
Your employer’s insurance company will investigate the details of your injury. Remember that in order to prove that your injury was work related, they need to know your ACTIONS (what you were doing at the time of your accident) and the SETTING (the time, place, and circumstances of the injury).
Tips to Avoid Injuries While Working at Home
In the end, it is the responsibility of your employer to provide a safe work environment, even if that environment happens to be your home. If they have given you permission to work from a location, then they are giving their stamp of approval on that location as a safe work environment. Some employers may send a representative to your home at the onset of remote work to survey the workplace setup, make necessary changes for ergonomics and safety, and then take pictures to document the agreed work environment.
And if your employer doesn’t provide a safety check, you can take your own safety measures to reduce the risk of injuries. Check the ergonomics of your workplace to make sure that furniture is secure, work stations and computer setups are ergonomically correct (see OSHA checklist here), and lighting is adequate. Use good posture, and set a timer to get up and stretch at least once an hour. Keep your walking areas clear and consider keeping your pets in a separate room while working. Talk to your HR department about other measures that you can take to create a safe home office environment and make remote working a positive experience for everyone involved.