Should work-from-home injuries involve workers' comp?

Courts rule in favour of remote employees who injure themselves falling down stairs

Should work-from-home injuries involve workers' comp?

A man slips and falls going downstairs from his bedroom to his home office, breaking his back. Is he entitled to workplace injury benefits? According to a German court, yes.

The German federal social court recently determined that the man, who was working from home, was injured during his “commute” to his home office and this was sufficiently related to his work to entitle him to workplace accident insurance.

A Quebec labour judge also made a similar finding recently when he ruled that an Air Canada call centre employee who worked from home was eligible for workers’ compensation benefits after she injured herself from a fall down the stairs going from her home office to her kitchen while on a lunch break. The judge found that the employee’s injury was a “sudden and unexpected event that occurred during work,” despite Air Canada’s argument that the employee wasn’t working when she was injured and it couldn’t be responsible for her safety in the private, personal space of her home.

The Quebec judge found that the employee was on her scheduled lunch break and was on the stairs at the time of her fall because of her work schedule, creating a “temporal proximity” between disconnecting from her assigned work and the unforeseen accident.

“Basically, the way the judge decided it is that she had a concrete work break and the reason she was moving was sufficiently related to her employment,” says Amy Gibson, partner at MLT Aikins in Saskatoon. “They're following [Quebec’s workers’ compensation] procedure and policy manual going, ‘These are the factors we'll consider to see if ‘x’ injury is sufficiently related to performing work duties.’”

Canadian HR Reporter previously spoke with an employment lawyer about eight legal considerations around work from home.

Work-from-home policies needed

In the past two years, the concept of the workplace has been redefined for many people. Areas of employees’ homes became their workplaces, but it didn’t change the obligation of employers to ensure that employees were safe while working.

“The workplace is considered wherever the employee performs their job,” says Gibson. “If they are being permitted to work from home, that same occupational health and safety (OHS) obligation to ensure that the workplace is safe does extend to the home office or the home workplace.”

The same idea can apply to workplace accidents and eligibility for workers’ compensation, she says.

“Each province has their own legislation and their own policy and procedure framework for determining when an employee falls under employment,” she says. “Performing duties in the course of employment can include travelling, going to a conference, or on-the-road job duties, but it can also include just working at home, so there's a broad spectrum of policies and procedures that a tribunal or board will look at to determine if that employee is performing work at that time or [the injuring accident] is sufficiently connected to their work.”

With the increase in remote work and hybrid workplaces, it’s possible that there may be similar decisions coming, says Gibson.

“An employee can make a claim if they have carpal tunnel issues from typing at home or from typing at the office. It's whether the injury arose in the course of performing employment duties, and that's the true connection that has to be made to get [workers’ compensation] coverage.”

Employers should be actively involved in workplace safety for remote employees and not dismiss home offices as private areas over which they have no control, she says, but that can be difficult from a practical perspective — it can be a lot of hassle to inspect a home office and employees would view it as an infringement on their privacy. A solution to help mitigate this is to have clear policies covering things like the home office set-up, ergonomic equipment, safety procedures, and hours of work that reflect those followed in the physical workplace.

“The most important thing is for employers to have work-from-home policies and work-from-home agreements — there are a lot of things that these types of agreements should cover that can provide protections for employers,” says Gibson. “The best thing an employer can do is put in place a work-from-home policy to ensure that those parameters are set at the outset, rather than just trying to deal with things on the fly.”

Since the pandemic started, Americans have recorded a 40-per-cent increase in internet searches for tech ailments since 2019, according to a report from Harmony Healthcare IT. There has also been a 78-per-cent increase in searches related to eye strain from working at a computer, and a 142-per-cent increase in searches related to back pain from working at a computer.

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