Health And Safety Concerns For Employees Now Working Remotely

Regardless of where they are—they're still working for you, which means you are responsible for their well being. Here's what you need to know.

I spent two years earlier in my career working from home. My office was an unfinished basement at first, and in the last year I moved it to the garage so I could open the door and have a panoramic view of the driveway.

It wasn’t easy by any stretch, the fantasy of trading in the commute for a workout at lunch or being able to make “good coffee” whenever I wanted never came to fruition. Reality was more like 12-hour days that ended with my wife opening the garage door and saying dinner had been ready for a couple of hours and she was tired of hearing “five more minutes.”

Of course, today it is very different. Nobody is actively choosing this pandemic work schedule. The community of remote workers is suddenly enormous—and, for CEOs, so are the non-obvious health and safety concerns for your newly-remote workforce.

I have a unique perspective on this as CEO of Bongarde, a web-centered information and training tools company that has been in the safety training, compliance, and awareness business since 1929. I can speak from experience in saying that remote work, especially this sudden remote work, and especially while in the midst of a public-health crisis, poses some serious OHS concerns for employees and employers – far beyond what I experienced in my garage for two years.

Based on that experience, Chief Executive asked me to write up some thoughts to share with other CEOs about insuring the health and safety of your workers who are suddenly working from home:

Ergonomics

It is estimated that musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) have an economic burden in excess of $150 billion in North America each year. It is a top-5 OHS hazard across every industry.

In the past three weeks, the internet memes have been on fire with COVID offices. Employees have converted ironing boards to stand-up desks. They are taking Zoom meetings from bathrooms because it is the only room in the house with a lock to keep the kids out.

I laugh at the pictures like everybody else, but the ergonomic impact on your employees is real and it isn’t funny.

In Canada and most U.S. states, you have an OHS responsibility, even for remote employees, to ensure they are working in a safe environment – free of risks and hazards. An employee taking a meeting while sitting on a toilet hunched over the laptop is not ergonomically sound, and the health and MSD risks are obvious.

The COVID surge might not have afforded the time to set up remote offices. It might be logistically impossible, if not financially unavailable, to order or purchase the right office equipment online to set-up your employees for ergonomic success; but there are general seating and posture rules that can be applied and enforced even if your work is being done at the dining room table.

Educate your employees of the importance of ergonomics, how to modify the principles for remote work, and check in on it before you are stuck with eventual worker compensation claims that will add more pain to this already difficult time.

Mental Wellness

Human beings are social creatures. A lot of talk in OHS and the media has been about the isolation, loneliness, and effects on overall mental health that have directly resulted from the social distancing and isolation guidelines associated with COVID-19.

The increase in stress and decrease in physical health are common in remote work, and only exasperated by the added stress and anxiety with the public health scare. Your employees are scared for their families, their relationships, their financial security.

Workplace stress is also always a leading OHS concern across industries. I read an article recently that talked about a case study with Ctrip, a Chinese travel agency that randomly assigned a small call-center staff to start working remotely. In the short term, the company reduced costs, improved retention rates, and employees reported being happier. But two weeks later, the tune changed, and sick-time increased, retention rates dropped, and overall employees complained of a feeling of loneliness and being disenfranchised with the company. Productivity plummeted because there was a break in the social bonds necessary for productive teamwork.

So, what can you do right now?

Overcommunicate. Utilize technology to bridge the isolation gap by having more than just meetings. We’ve implemented a weekly lunch, where we just get together via video conference and eat together, play games, talk about binge-watching. It’s helped. No matter what, formalize a procedure and person to check in on remote employees at predetermined intervals.

Document communication policies. Online communication is a minefield. Texts do not communicate sarcasm or jokes. What may be innocuous in person can be perceived as harassment online. Sometimes the lines are clear, but sometimes they’re fuzzy. If you add external stressors like a public-health scare, unguided online communication can be disastrous.

Make mental well-being a priority. Maybe you can’t organize walks, but your health provider/partner has evolved, and a lot of online and remote tools exist to improve mental health. Maybe purchasing a group/team license for apps like CALM is the right kind of OHS purchase at this time and for the long term.

Overall OHS

I’ve already said it, but you have a duty to protect your employees, regardless of where they work. You should be taking extra care to ensure that your newly remote employees are aware of their OHS rights and are following safe work behaviors.

Do you have updated emergency contact information? Do your remote employees know how to report workplace injuries when they are remote? Has your safety committee discussed or reinforced training about worker’s rights, such as their right to refuse unsafe work? Are they exercising good workplace hygiene? Are they ensuring the cleanliness of themselves and the work environment?

I made a joke earlier about working in the bathroom, but the increased risk of a slip or fall in a wet bathroom is real, and it is still work if they are in a meeting in that bathroom, and their potential injury is still your responsibility.

If you were fortunate enough to be one of the few companies that had a remote working policy in place and a pandemic preparedness procedure, consider yourself lucky. But even if you did, you couldn’t have imagined what is our current daily reality.

• What do your employees need to know regarding overall OHS while they are working remote due to COVID-19?

• What steps your workplace has in place for the pandemic. What is the continuity plan? What is their role?

• What training should they be doing? You might have employees doing the work for others, do they have the training required? Can they do that work safety?

• Do they have a remote work emergency/OHS plan/kit? What are their new risks and hazards? How do they mitigate those risks? What do they do in an emergency?

• What are their rights? What work can they refuse?

Wash their hands, exercise social distancing, know that they are part of a community that will get through this.

A pandemic is not a good litmus test for remote work and OHS strategies, but I know that businesses can persevere, and that tools and resources are there to help. It might be too hard to look out too far into the future right now, but with some diligence and thought, remote working can work, and work very well.

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Richard Tobin is President & CEO of Bongarde media, a web-centered information and training tools company focused on the compliance and education needs of safety, environmental, and human resource professionals across the US and Canada. Since 1929, Bongarde has been providing companies, industry associations and government organizations with the practical compliance and training products they need to keep their workers safe and their OHS programs up to date.