Safety risks hit home for employers

Remote and hybrid work arrangements, which were put in place when pandemic lockdowns forced many workers to stay home, have left employers with lingering safety-related concerns even as COVID-19 fades.

Many ergonomics concerns related to remote work were well-known before the pandemic, but with home offices commonplace those issues demand an extra level of attention, sources say. And employers should be particularly careful about workers compensation exposures that have evolved as employees continue to operate from remote locations.

Employers can use technology to help set employees up remotely and train them on safety protocols, they say.

A workers comp claim filed in a state where an employee didn’t previously work could create problems if the employer did not update its records and filings, said Peter R. Siegel, an attorney in the labor and employment and litigation practice groups at Greenspoon Marder LLP in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

“The employer could become liable not only for the claim and medical bills and lost income but could also be subject to penalties and fines in the state in which the claim was filed,” Mr. Siegel said. “We tell companies all the time, you need to do a better job of tracking your employees.”

“Employers are, unfortunately, failing to have workers comp policies that accurately reflect their workforce,” he said. Many assumed the pandemic would be over quickly and “are still operating under an obsolete policy, meaning that nowhere in the policy does it contemplate the reality of having employees throughout the United States.”

The fix usually requires an investment of time to sort out coverage.

“Employers need to get with their broker and insurance carrier and make sure that their workers comp policy reflects this new reality of remote work,” Mr. Siegel said.

Some employers obtain “all-states policies” that give them flexibility if they have a multi-state workforce, while others buy a separate policy for remote workers, he said.

Insurers may provide a policy that allows employers to list the residences and working locations of all employees.

“One of the key issues in managing this type of risk is determining compensability,” said Rich Ives, vice president responsible for workers comp claims at Travelers Cos. Inc. in Hartford, Connecticut. That means sorting out whether an injury occurred in the course and scope of employment, he said.

Insurers will also want to know whether an injury was related to a pre-existing condition, Mr. Ives said. That’s the aim of a Travelers unit that investigates claimants’ medical histories to determine whether a condition existed prior to working remotely, he said.

Polly James, senior director of risk management at Feld Entertainment Inc. in Palmetto, Florida, who also worked in risk management for a major hotel company, said most employees wouldn’t try to hoodwink employers. “Most people who have an accident at home are more likely to take responsibility for it themselves and not submit a workers comp claim,” she said.

That appears to be true for Lockton Cos. LLC, said Paul Primavera, the broker’s executive vice president and national risk control services practice leader in Irvine, California. The burden is on the remote worker to prove whether injuries are work-related, and the broker has not seen a noticeable difference in claims as workers have moved their offices to their homes, he said.

But employers do increase the odds of workers comp claims if they ignore employees’ home-office ergonomics, experts say.

“The amount of time they are spending on their computers is skyrocketing, and the potential for ergonomic-related workers comp claims can increase with remote workers,” said Liz Petersen, San Diego-based quality manager in the Society for Human Resource Management’s knowledge center.

“Many people who started working from a virtual office two years ago might still be sitting in the same chair in their kitchen and working off the same table,” said Chris Hayes, Hartford-based assistant vice president in risk control for workers compensation and transportation at Travelers.

“If you have someone working from home for any period of time, you need to make sure they have a good ergonomic setup” that includes a chair that supports appropriate posture as well as proper monitor height, keyboard reach, mouse position and other features, he said.

Alan Roberts, senior risk engineering consultant with Zurich Resilience Solutions in San Francisco, a unit of Zurich Insurance Group Ltd., said many companies use self-assessment software to identify and manage ergonomic risk factors when workers report problems.

Employers should stress the importance of early reporting of discomfort, Mr. Roberts said. Knowing as soon as possible what’s troubling workers can reveal the kinds of changes that need to be made and get them healthy quicker, he said.

Ideally, ergonomics training should take place before a worker moves to a remote location, according to Mr. Roberts and other experts.

Close attention to ergonomics has apparently paid off for employers, said Jennifer Law, vice president, senior loss control consultant, with Lockton Cos. LLC in Charlotte, North Carolina. “We see the risk,” she said, but have not seen an increase in workers comp claims.

Ms. Law said employers were forced by pandemic lockdowns to advise workers on setting up remote offices and to supply them with furniture and equipment designed to keep them safe. Many consult virtually with employees to determine their office needs and contract with third-party vendors to help set up the workspaces, she said.

This article was first published in Business Insurance.

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