Richard B. Johnson
The Worker’s Compensation Board of BC, better known as WorkSafe BC, oversees the health and safety requirements for all workplaces in the province. But with the nature of workplaces shifting to a more remote model, many employers are wondering how to implement health and safety policies that serve a more dispersed employee base.
It’s important to remember that your “workplace” is wherever you do your work. When you’re working from home, your home becomes your workplace. Every workplace is required to have a health and safety policy, and the onus is on employers to tailor those policies as workplaces change. The Workers’ Compensation Act and all provincial occupational health and safety regulations continue to apply whether you’re working in a traditional office, or from your kitchen table.
Creating a Safety Policy
Most employee’s homes aren’t particularly dangerous environments (hopefully), but there can still be potential hazards. This is especially true for former office workers who, due to the pandemic, are now working from home full-time. Many of these employees are still working in spaces that were never intended to be used for desk work 40 hours a week.
There are a handful of components that are universal to any workplace safety policy:
Training and education on workplace safety practices
Guidelines for conducting an environmental safety audit
Guidelines for reporting potential hazards or injuries
An outline of the safety responsibilities of employees, supervisors, and the organization
In many cases, safety policies for employees working from home will be very similar to those aimed at in-office employees. Regardless of the similarities, an employer is still obligated to have a separate, specific policy for remote workers, and that policy should also contain some literature about working alone or in isolation.
Auditing a Space
Auditing an employee’s workspace is an important step in creating an effective health and safety policy, as it gives both the employer and the employee the opportunity to spot potential hazards.
An employer needs to be aware of potential hazards that an employee may face in their work environment, because it is the employer’s job to provide the safest possible environment for their employees. Understanding the risks an employee may be facing allows the employer to take the necessary steps to mitigate those potential issues.
Specific Safety Concerns
When you think of WorkSafe, you might think of safety procedures for people working around heavy industrial equipment, such as in a machine shop or packaging plant. While heavy industry comes with more obvious and immediate hazards, the hazards found in an office environment need to be treated with the same care.
Repetitive stress injuries are seen frequently in desk workers, and these injuries can cause significant pain and reduced ability, especially if left untreated for months or years. These types of injuries usually arise from poor posture, improper computer techniques, and general inactivity. A good safety policy for a remote desk worker should include some guidelines on proper posture and ergonomics, as well as for taking regular breaks to stretch or rest one’s eyes — by going for a walk outside, for example.
Outside of ergonomics, employees working from home may face environmental hazards such as secondhand smoke or exposure to mold or asbestos. The employer also needs to be made aware of these types of concerns.
Giving Workers the Equipment to Uphold the Safety Policy
A well-developed safety policy is all well and good, but if employees aren’t able to follow the guidelines therein, then it’s really just a waste of paper. The health and safety policy should detail what steps an employee needs to take to mitigate their risk, and in cases where the employee requires certain equipment (for example, a proper desk chair or a fan to improve ventilation) the employer is obligated to provide that equipment.
When employees are working in an office, the employer is already providing this equipment, so it’s not too much of a stretch to provide it for them for long-term remote work. In many cases, bringing home some office furniture is a simple and acceptable option, especially if the office space is not going to be used for a period of time or the foreseeable future.
The key here is that the onus is on the employer to make sure that the employee has the tools that they need to succeed. If an employer has allowed an employee to bring home equipment, then those tools still belong to the employer. If that employee resigns, the employer is well within their rights to take back that furniture or equipment.
Reporting and Communicating Potential Issues
An environmental audit to identify existing issues is one part of the puzzle, but what if an employee notices a new issue that arises after they’ve been working in a space for a while? There needs to be an open line of communication between the employee and the employer or a supervisor.
Where in a shared office an employee and employer may become aware of a hazard at the same time, in a remote work scenario the employer can’t see what’s going on in an employee’s home. Therefore, it becomes the employee’s obligation to report any new issues so that the employer can take steps to mitigate risk.
Communicating specific hazards is important, but an employer should also have a general picture of the health and safety of an employee on a day-to-day basis.
In certain jobs, it’s common for employees to work independently for hours or days at a time, without much direct communication with coworkers or supervisors. This is fine if an employee is visibly present at an office, but when an employee is working remotely it becomes necessary to have some method of checking in on them every few hours, or once per day. Starting the day with a 15-minute all-hands meeting, sending a quick text or Slack message during the day, or requiring employees to sign on to a project-management platform when they begin work are all valid ways to do this.
If your employees tend to chat and exchange emails throughout the day anyway, then it might not be necessary to make any adjustments in this regard. But particularly with regards to employees who live alone, it is very important for employers to have a reliable way of confirming that the employee is not only engaged in their work, but that they haven’t fallen ill or suffered an injury.
Work-from-Home Injury Claims
If you are an employee and you have suffered an injury while working from home, you may be able to claim it through WorkSafe BC.
The difficulty with repetitive stress injuries, and especially those that occur in remote work scenarios, is that it’s often a challenge to separate what is work-related and what isn’t.
A repetitive stress injury like carpal tunnel is compensable, but you need to be able to effectively prove that it is work-related and not a result of you playing video games for hours each night. You may need to ask your employer to provide documentation from an environmental audit, showing what type of space you were working in and the ergonomics of that space. You may also need to provide records that you had previously reported a potential issue, for example that you were experiencing increased pain or discomfort while typing.
Regardless of whether they happen at work, it’s often difficult to narrow down the exact cause of long-term injuries like this. In many cases you may also need to seek out the opinion of a physician, or ask your employer to corroborate the story.
If it is plausible that your injury was caused by work, then you may be compensated for lost wages if you need to take time off, or for the cost of medical equipment or treatments (for example, a wrist brace or physiotherapy sessions). All workplace injury compensation is paid out by WorkSafe BC.
We expect that remote work arrangements are here to stay for many businesses. Call us to discuss how you can make your workplace arrangements better and legally sound!