Flexible work hours and work spaces is a clear employment trend. Not only can it save money for the employer (less work space to provide) but it absolutely assists in recruiting and retaining valuable employees. Telecommuting can bring its own set of problems though, as many employers know. One of them is ensuring a safe work space for the employee when they are working remotely.
Take the case of Mary Sandberg v. J C Penney. Ms. Sandberg was a J.C. Penney employee in Oregon, working as a designer for the company. While working at home one day she walked to her garage to retrieve some fabric samples and tripped over her dog. She broke her wrist in the resulting fall. Claiming that her injury arose out of and in the course of employment, Ms. Sandberg filed a claim for worker’s compensation and ultimately received an award for her injury. Despite the fact that she was in her own house and tripped over her own dog, it was determined that her injury did occur during the course of her employment, while she was performing her duties for the company.
We’ll never know whether Ms. Sandberg was actually retrieving fabric samples when she sustained her injury, but absent a reason to believe that she was lying, we have no reason to disbelieve her claim. This illustrates the big problem with telecommuting – the employer loses control of the workplace. Nevertheless, there is a lesson for employers here. If employees are allowed to work at home, it is best to have a solid telecommuting policy in place which includes the following:
- Guidelines for a home office, such as a designated work area, and provide training related to workstation setup and safety measures, including ergonomics.
- When appropriate and possible, conduct periodic checks of employee home offices to help identify and eliminate work area safety hazards.
- Set fixed work hours and meal and rest periods for telecommuters. Doing so can help establish whether an injury was “in the course of” employment.
A strong policy helps employers manage not only the time but also the space where employees work remotely.