New legislation that goes into effect in Ohio on Sept. 23 will amend the state’s rules on Workers’ Compensation benefits to address injuries that occur while an individual is working from home. Signed into law in June, House Bill 447 adds exclusions and guidelines for injuries sustained by at-home employees, Property Casualty 360 recently reported.
“With Workers’ Compensation, employees working from home has been a gray area,” said Justin Dorman, National Product Manager, Workers’ Compensation, Burns & Wilcox, Charleston, South Carolina. “It is sometimes difficult to say whether someone actually got hurt in the course of their job at home. It seems like what Ohio is trying to do is narrow that scope to make sure Workers’ Compensation Insurance carriers only have to pay for claims that occur during the course of work instead of having that gray area.”
With Workers’ Compensation, employees working from home has been a gray area. It is sometimes difficult to say whether someone actually got hurt in the course of their job at home.
The new law is reportedly the first of its kind and comes at a time when working at home is increasingly sought-after by job applicants. Given how common remote work has become, it is surprising this type of legislation has not come up sooner, said Morgan McCoy, Underwriter, Workers’ Compensation, Burns & Wilcox, Charleston, South Carolina.
“I am surprised it has taken this long,” he said, adding that other states may be watching Ohio and eventually introduce their own eligibility parameters for work-at-home injuries. “There is going to be a lot more working from home in the future not only because of COVID, but that is just the direction we are headed in.”
Companies could see more at-home injury claims as remote work continues
The number of individuals working from home has risen sharply during the pandemic. New U.S. Census Bureau data, released Sept. 15, showed that the number of remote workers tripled between 2019 to 2021, jumping from 5.7% to 17.9%. The highest rate was found in Washington, D.C., where 48.3% of workers had remote positions. In addition, about 58% of Americans reported having the opportunity to work from home at least one day per week, according to the American Opportunity Survey released in June by McKinsey & Company.
Workers’ Compensation Insurance, which employers are required to carry in most states, can cover injured workers’ medical expenses and a portion of their wages while they are unable to work. Death benefits are also available. While Ohio’s new law appears to be the first to specifically address work-at-home injuries, each state has its own guidelines for Workers’ Compensation eligibility.
I am surprised it has taken this long [for rules on work-at-home injuries]. There is going to be a lot more working from home in the future not only because of COVID, but that is just the direction we are headed in.
“Each state interprets their laws differently,” Dorman explained. “Some states are a little more liberal, which makes rates go higher in those states, and some states are easier to write insurance in.”
In 2018, a man in Germany was allowed to file a claim under his employer’s insurance after falling down the stairs on his way from his bed to his home office, according to NPR. That sort of ruling would not be likely to happen in the U.S., sources told Boston news station WBUR in January in a report on the “legally gray area” of work-from-home injuries.
With more employers allowing full- or part-time remote work arrangements, companies could see a greater proportion of claims resulting from injuries sustained at home. While Dorman said he is not aware of any definitive trends on the issue, he would “assume there has been an uptick” in work-at-home injuries simply due to the increase in remote workers.
How these would be covered by Workers’ Compensation Insurance would vary based upon the state and the individual circumstances of the case, he said. In 2019, for example, a Florida court ruled that a work-at-home employee who was injured after tripping over her dog in her kitchen was not eligible for Workers’ Compensation, Law.com reported.
It will be interesting to see how they will do the claim investigations. Each carrier will have their own stance on it and how to handle it.
“When there is a claim, the insurance carrier is going to look into it and see whether or not they feel it should be covered,” Dorman said.
The investigation process may also vary for work-at-home injuries, McCoy added. “It will be interesting to see how they will do the claim investigations,” he said. “Each carrier will have their own stance on it and how to handle it.”
Back and neck strain among potential work-at-home hazards
In 2020, 2.7 million non-fatal workplace injuries and illnesses were reported in the U.S. — a decrease of 5.7% compared to 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The incidence of claims was the same or reduced in all industries except for the health care and social assistance industry, which saw a 40.1% increase in injuries and illnesses.
Unlike industries such as construction and agriculture, which the National Safety Council lists as among the most dangerous, clerical jobs are generally in a lower-risk category when it comes to potential workplace hazards, Dorman said. “Work from home is going to be clerical almost every time. In general, clerical claims are pretty low,” he said. “It is one of the lowest-rated classes in Workers’ Compensation.”
Still, this type of work is not risk-free, McCoy and Dorman agreed. Possible injuries in office settings could include back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, minor cuts and more. “You could pull your back out reaching to grab something, or twist an ankle walking to the break room,” Dorman said.
Similar injuries could happen at home and could occur at a higher rate since office environments are specifically designed for worker safety. “If somebody fell down their stairs at home because they were just going to the bathroom, is that going to be a claim? Those are things that would not necessarily happen in an office that is set up for safety,” Dorman said. “They think about those things when they create office spaces but when you are at home, you are not necessarily thinking about safety for yourself. There could be a higher rate of claims working from home because of that.”
Even using non-ergonomic home furniture for work could mean a greater risk of injuries, McCoy said. “That can definitely make a huge difference,” he said. “[Having the right equipment] is a big part of it.”
In August of 2020, an analysis on remote work published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that most at-home workers in the study reported a worsening of neck pain. The results also suggested that musculoskeletal disorders related to working at home may reduce job satisfaction, the authors noted.
“You could have a lot of those issues that come with incorrect posture if workers do not have the best setup at home,” Dorman said.
Ensuring safety for work-at-home employees
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, musculoskeletal disorders are associated with high costs to employers due to missing work and lost productivity, medical expenses, and Workers’ Compensation costs. Considering the risk of these conditions and other injuries, companies should make sure their remote workers have a safe home-office environment.
“If they do not have best practices in place, they should do that and make sure every employee is following those guidelines to maximize the safety of their employees,” Dorman said. “It could be as simple as updating your employee manual so that it is current with what is going on. It is important for every company to review that, at least annually.”
Some companies may even ask to review a remote worker’s home office setup before they begin work, Dorman said. “You may see more companies implementing higher safety standards or even having employees take pictures for the human resources department,” he said.
An employee’s at-home video monitoring system could also come into play in the event of a claim, McCoy said. “I have a Nest camera in my office, so if I got hurt, I could actually prove it,” he said. “You may see carriers starting to ask for that to help their claims run more smoothly.”
Employers should also be careful about any recreational programs they offer, like virtual exercise sessions or team-building activities, as these could come with a higher risk of injuries, McCoy said. “If they had a morning yoga session and it was during work hours, and someone got injured, that could be a Workers’ Compensation claim,” he said.
“Those events should be completely voluntary,” Dorman added.
Even though it may seem expensive at first, investing in employee safety is going to go a long way.
Workers’ Compensation Insurance carriers often offer a variety of safety resources, including free webinars or training sessions, McCoy pointed out. Employers should take advantage of these offerings, he said. “There are a lot of little perks that carriers spend a lot of money on to help cut down on claims,” he said. “It is nice to be able to offer that to the employer.”
Companies seeking out Workers’ Compensation Insurance should ask about these extra benefits. “They can ask their insurance broker and the broker can look at the carriers they represent and see if they have any offerings. A lot of our carriers are going to have some sort of free safety information,” Dorman said. “They want as few claims as possible.”
Employers can also consider providing ergonomic office equipment and encouraging employees to take breaks or stretch once an hour. “Even though it may seem expensive at first, investing in employee safety is going to go a long way,” he said.