OHS obligations for at-home workers

Limited legislation on employers’ role for telecommuters

Approximately 1,200 of Direct Energy’s 6,000 North American employees work from home.

A company may be inclined to differentiate between the two groups when it comes to health and safety, but that’s something the Toronto-based company tries not to do, says Roelie Cronje, head of health and safety at Direct Energy.

“We truly believe that our ambition of zero injuries must be very clear to both of those groups,” Cronje says.

As part of the company’s orientation process, all new employees are required to complete the company’s musculoskeletal disorder prevention program, called Workstation Safety Plus.

Whether an employee conducts her work in one of the company’s offices or at home — also known as telecommuting — she must complete the online self assessment that determines how ergonomically sound the employee’s workspace is.

“It goes through… the setup of your chair, the setup of your screen, the distance of your screen, your posture, how often you need to take breaks and it’s very, very clear in asking the questions like, ‘In what position is your arm right now?’” he says.

When completed, the employee will be given a colour indicating how safe her workspace and habits are: green means the employee successfully completes a process, red means improvement is necessary.

“As the health and safety team, we get the results from ‘Joe’s workstation’ that everything is red — from his posture, the height of his screen,” Cronje says. “The next thing is… what are the actions that this person is taking to reduce the risk?”

The program makes suggestions to the employee and she can adjust her working style accordingly. The employee can then redo the self assessment whenever she likes.

“Eventually everything should be green and people should not have any reason to have aches and pains while doing office work,” Cronje says.

Because Direct Energy has so many employees located outside of the office, this self-assessment-style model is what the company thought was best to adopt, Cronje says.

“Obviously we cannot go into someone’s home to do that observation… it’s just self-awareness,” he says. “That’s the sort of approach that we are taking for our people at home.”

The safety of telecommuters should be a concern for employers, although legislation isn’t particularly clear, says John Illingworth, a lawyer at law firm Gowlings’ Waterloo Ont., office.

“From a health and safety point of view, it’s difficult to say that an employer has any significant amount of control over the work performed in a person’s home,” Illingworth says, noting that legislation in Ontario distinguishes working from home from other settings. “There’s no doubt they’re seen as being different under the Occupational Health and Safety Act.”

Legislation is confusing in other areas, as well.

“Where I do think a lot of employers do have questions — and it’s not entirely settled — is in respect of injuries that take place in a home during the course of work. Is that significant to trigger workers’ compensation obligations?”

The role of the workers’ compensation board is still a questionable area, Illingworth says.

“It’s obviously difficult to establish in those situations whether or not an injury occurs in the course of employment,” he says, adding that in Ontario, the Workplace Safety and Insurance Appeals Tribunal (WSIAT) has examined work performed at a private residence which was incidental to the normal work performed.

“In those cases, it appears the WSIAT will apply the normal test for determining whether the worker was in the course of employment,” he says.

Direct Energy prepares all of its employees for the possibility of an injury occurring.

“Every employee — whether you’re home-based or not — will receive an accident package,” Cronje says. “First step — call your supervisor. Step two — if you need to see a doctor, these are the forms the doctor will need to complete. It’s very, very well designed and organized.”

An injury occurring off-site is treated just like an injury on-site, Cronje says.

“There’s no difference whether you are injured at work or at home,” he says. “Our manager for health and safety will go out with the supervisor of that employee and a joint health and safety committee member to investigate an incident. So, it is no different than an injury at work.”

Direct Energy hasn’t had any at-home injuries, Cronje says.

Employers should also verify the safety of company-supplied equipment being used offsite, Illingworth says.

“Employers should, of course, have some concern with respect to equipment they provide to be used in someone’s home and ensuring that it’s in working order, safe and, to the extent it’s appropriate, that they have means by which they can confirm the equipment’s being maintained in a safe manner,” he says.

As is the case with employees who work in-office, accommodations may need to be made for telecommuters with disabilities, Illingworth says.

“The employer may find they have some accommodation duties on the grounds of disability dependent of any statutory safety obligation that would require them to assist the employee,” he says.

Employers should also consider insurance, says Lisa Stam, a lawyer with Toronto-based law firm Baker and McKenzie.

“Do they have proper home and office insurance so that if their house burns down and there’s all sorts of company property or documents at home, who’s on the hook for that?” she says. “Make sure that in their contract and in any policy the employer develops over that, they talk about insurance issues and allocate that risk accordingly.”

For Direct Energy, their primary concern is ensuring the importance of safety is driven from the top down.

“Our senior leaders and our general managers group have a strategic roadmap with 29 elements,” Cronje says. “With each of those elements, we have process and system requirements to move from being compliant through to being a leading organization with very clear actions.”

Ongoing assessments and communication with telecommuters demonstrates health and safety of workers is a priority, he says.

“Safety is not a program, it’s a process,” he says.

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