Colsa Insurance Agency, Inc. Blog
As more Americans work from home than ever before, many employers are wondering about their obligations under OSHA as well as how to reduce the chances that workers may be injured while telecommuting.
Obviously, the chances of an injury when working from home are small. The most common issue that is likely to arise is long-term injuries from poor workstation design, which can result in carpal tunnel syndrome and other stress and ergonomic injuries that develop over time.
For the most part, employers should approach workplace safety for telecommuting workers as they would safety for office workers, particularly workstation design and arrangement (ergonomics) as well as work scheduling and distribution.
Duties under OSHA
OSHA's General Duty Clause applies to any place an employer has staff working, be that at the company's facilities or worksites, at a customer's worksite, or even if they work from home.
Under the clause, employers have a general duty to "furnish to each of his employee's employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees."
Fortunately, most workplace safety specialists say that employers have little responsibility in ensuring a safe workplace. In fact, OSHA has issued guidance stating that it:
Workers' comp still in play
While that is good news, employers are still responsible for any injuries an employee suffers while working from home under workers' compensation laws.
For an injury to be considered work-related it must:
With that in mind, employers do have an obligation to ensure that a home worksite is safe in order to prevent injuries, even if OSHA does not require it.
The international law firm of Foley & Lardner, LLP recommends that employers:
While you as an employer are not required under OSHA regulations to inspect your workers' home's for compliance, it is a good idea to give them guidelines for how to set up their home office and also work with them to supply any needed furniture or accessories they would need to safely carry out their work tasks.
You may also want to consider asking them to install a smoke alarm in their home and that they have a plan to evacuate in case of fire or other emergency. Also if they have a lot of electrical equipment, there should be sufficient ventilation.
As lawsuits against employers continue rising amid the coronavirus pandemic, some businesses are requiring workers to sign waivers absolving them of liability and responsibility should they contract the virus.
Eight percent of executives surveyed by law firm Blank Rome said they would require that their workers sign waivers of liability before returning to the workplace.
While employers are trying to protect themselves from a liability that didn't even exist a year ago, some human resources legal experts have expressed concerns that they may not be necessary and may be unenforceable.
The moves come as employers are wrestling with numerous risks that the pandemic has wrought, and with the U.S. Senate having proposed legislation that would limit the liability of employers for workers who become sick during the pandemic. A number of states have also enacted laws or emergency regulations that make it harder for employees to sue employers for negligence over COVID-19.
COVID-19-spurred employee lawsuits have mostly centered on employers not providing the proper protections for workers, discrimination or for being laid off for refusing to come to work.
Legal experts caution that employers cannot require workers to waive rights they may have, such as access to workers' compensation benefits or the right to file a complaint with OSHA.
They also say that some employers may consider waivers as a green light to not take precautions against COVID-19, but in such cases the waivers would likely not be legal.
If a worker claims they caught COVID-19 at work and the facts back that up, they would likely have access to workers' compensation benefits (some states even require it). But if the employer was negligent, the employee could have further legal avenues to pursue besides workers' compensation, rights that cannot legally be waived, lawyers say.
So even if an employee were to sign a document waiving their right to file a complaint if they feel their employer is being negligent, they may still have recourse.
Requiring workers to sign waivers could present a number of legal issues, according to the law website nolo.com, including:
While employees who refuse to sign a waiver of their company's liability may have grounds to challenge their employer, some liability lawyers say that employers instead of a waiver can ask their staff to sign a social contract that requires:
This type of agreement won't protect an employer from a lawsuit, but it does spell out that they are following authorities' recommendation for protecting employees.
While employees who refuse to sign a waiver of their company's liability could have grounds to sue, those who sign this type of acknowledgement of new workplace rules and government guidance are less likely to be successful if they are fired for not signing. This is because the acknowledgement is not forcing them to give up any of their rights and is rather for their and their co-workers' protection.
These social contracts also would provide workers with a list of their responsibilities when working during the COVID-19 pandemic, and outline what their employer is doing to protect them.