Covid-19 and the Potential Increased Risk of a Work-Related Injury Occurring with Work-At-Home Employees

By April 14, 2020 Workers' Compensation

The State of Michigan has been placed on a “Shelter-at-Home” order due to the Covid-19 outbreak. Many employers have developed the capability to allow their employees to work from home. One issue an employer may potentially face is when an employee is required to work from home due to the “Shelter-at-Home” Order and subsequently, suffers an injury. Employers must consider what types of injuries will be covered under the Workers Disability Compensation Act, hereinafter the Act, and what injuries fall outside the scope of the Act.

The below enumerated considerations apply not only to our current challenges with the Covid-19 virus, but also apply to work-at-home arrangements in general. Clearly, a company’s employees are the lifeblood of the business, an asset so to speak. They help the business run and they are greatly cared for as part of the work family. They are also people with families at home, children, pets, a life away from work and whether they are wearing a hat of an employee or of a family member while working from home, they are all facing the stress and reality of the Covid-19 virus. With this being said, one could ask if this is the time to be addressing this issue? We say Yes!

Certainly, an employer wants to avoid exposure for proposed questionable work-related injuries, regardless of where they occur, and although the below suggestions might help accomplish this the end result might also help avoid any injury to your employee regardless of work-relationship. A safe and healthy employee not only benefits the employer, but also the employee and their families.

Unfortunately, employers and employees will likely have to endure the difficulties associated with working from home for possibly the next few months due to the Covid-19 virus. Accordingly, looking at this potential issue makes sense.

In general, the Act provides that an injury will be compensable if it arises out of the course and scope of the employee’s employment, regardless where the injury takes place. Although this test may seem to establish a clear standard, application can be difficult.

This work at home arrangement potentially subjects the employer to liability for conditions not within the employer’s control. The employer typically has no knowledge of the risks associated with an employee’s home and the lines between activities of a personal nature and those activities that are work-related can become blurred. This creates an environment that can potentially make an employer liable for injuries due to risks that would normally not be present in an office environment; however, there are actions an employer can take to help limit its liability:

  • Create rules and guidelines to be followed by employees during work hours;
  • Specify what activities will be considered within the scope of employment;
  • Define the responsibilities and expectations of the at-home position;
  • Specify activities that will not be considered within the scope of employment;
  • Specify work hours;
  • List prohibited social/recreational activities, specifically and in general;
  • Define a specific workspace where work activities are to occur;
  • Employers have required pictures of clear paths to the kitchen/bathroom to ensure no trip hazards exist;
  • Utilize computer sign in while working, sign out when not working;
  • Review rules with employee, obtain signature confirming understanding;
  • Some employers require proof of childcare availability to ensure work productivity and to avoid injuries during work hours associated with childcare;
  • Communicate consistently regarding their workload and status (break, lunch, working on a project, etc.);
  • Follow all company procedures and policies as applicable to situation;
  • Refrain from using alcohol or illegal drugs;

The above is not intended to be a complete list of all possible considerations, but it will get you moving in the right direction.

There are other situations that could increase your workers compensation exposure with work-at-home employees during the Covid-19 epidemic, especially when performing activities that they did not have to perform previously, to include but not limited to:

  • Does the employee have to use steps to get to their designated work area thus increasing the risk of injury traversing the stairs, when at work you did not have this risk;
  • Is the at-home-workspace ergonomic or is your employee more likely to develop some medical difficulties associated with poor ergonomics;
  • Are employees now making special required trips to the post office, supply store or other such locations potentially increasing the risk of an injury or accident;

As you can see, placing an employee at home to work does create the need to at least consider the possibility of a work injury occurring. Although we do not see many of these claims, they are possible and much more likely with the significant number of current work-at-home employees.

As an employer, you will not be able to eliminate all potential liability, but these are some of the actions that can limit some of the new risks that you might be facing due to the Covid-19 virus.

As a final note, it would be a good idea for employers to check their workers’ compensation policies to ensure coverage extends to those employees working from home.

Russell F. Elder, Esq.
Stephen P. Wezner, Esq.
HVH

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