Workers' compensation and the home office telecommuter

Have you ever thought about what happens if an employee is injured while taking a coffee break or walking to the restroom?

Courts in most states have ruled that employees who are injured while taking short breaks from work to seek personal comfort can be eligible for workers’ compensation benefits.

This raises the question: What happens when that injury occurs while the employee is working from home?

With more people telecommuting , it's an issue of growing concern for employers.

That coffee break may be compensable

In a December 2008 case, the Minnesota Workers' Compensation Court of Appeals confirmed extension of the personal comfort doctrine  to employees working from a home office. The personal comfort doctrine states that an employee can be entitled to benefits for an injury that occurs during work hours, but while the employee is taking care of personal needs.

In the case (Munson v. Wilmar/Interline Brands ) the court awarded benefits to an employee who was injured when descending the stairs to get a cup of coffee while working from his home office.

The employer in the case required the employee to maintain a home office as part of his job as a sales representative. On a Saturday morning, the employee was planning to prepare a month-end sales report. He dialed into the company's server and prepared the report, but had some technical difficulty sharing the report. The employee decided to take a break, and went downstairs to the kitchen to get a cup of coffee. As he went down the stairs, he slipped and fell on his back, fracturing his T9 vertebrae and requiring surgery. The employer and insurer denied the claim, and denied that the personal comfort doctrine applied to a home office setting.

While the court recognized that determining liability for injuries occurring in home office settings may be difficult, the court examined the specific circumstances of the case presented, and found the injury compensable through application of the personal comfort doctrine. The court noted that the employee was working shortly before he took his break, was performing duties required by the employer, and did not engage in any unreasonably dangerous or risky behavior when he went to get his coffee. The court found it no different than an employee working at the employer's main facility who takes a coffee break and walks to the break room, sustaining an injury in the process.

Person working from home with coffee cup in hand

The personal comfort doctrine in other states

Case law in most states reflects recognition of the personal comfort doctrine or some similar principle, generally allowing workers to be compensated for injuries that occur on short comfort-related breaks from work. Whether the personal comfort doctrine applies to telecommuters hasn't yet been tested in all courts. If an employee is injured while taking a brief break during the workday to grab a snack, go to the bathroom, get a cup of coffee, or similar personal convenience tasks — whether at an employer’s corporate office or at the employee’s home office — a court is likely to find the employee eligible for workers’ compensation. These types of cases will be very fact-dependent to determine whether the worker has deviated from his or her employment activities at the time of the injury.

Confirm that telecommuters have a safe working environment

Presumably, injuries suffered while home office employees take breaks to do housework, provide care to children, etc., will not be found compensable. Courts will examine whether the injury arose out of and occurred in the course of employment activities, or instead occurred while performing activities normally performed as a homeowner or household resident.

Because there will not typically be any witnesses to the accident other than the employee, it is paramount that employers allow only the employees whom they trust to work in any unsupervised setting, including a home office. Employers should clearly define any expectations or policies governing the terms and conditions of telecommuting work activities and environments. When accidents do occur, employers should promptly make a detailed investigation of exactly when the accident occurred, what the employee was doing at the time of the injury (as well as before and after the injury), and how the accident happened. 

Additionally, while employers cannot completely eliminate safety hazards in a home office setting, just as they cannot in the traditional employment setting, employers should enforce good risk management practices to ensure that home office workplaces are as safe as possible.

Planning for safe remote work

You can prepare for the safety of your remote workers by creating or reviewing your policies and procedures for remote work:

  • Develop a remote work policy that covers eligibility, safety, equipment and security
  • Have the employee sign a remote work agreement, acknowledging their responsibilities
  • Create a safety checklist or assessment for remote workspaces
  • Require a dedicated workstation in their home
  • Consider equipment and security needs
  • Provide safety training and resources
  • Follow up on a regular basis to ensure safety procedures are being followed

Safety concerns in home offices

As an employer, you can monitor and enforce safety practices at your central office. It becomes more challenging when you don’t control your worker’s environment.

Do all you can to ensure that employees’ working spaces meet minimum criteria for safety. Workers may be more complacent in their own homes, and disregard tripping hazards or poor ergonomics.

A dedicated home workstation is beneficial because, unlike lounging on the couch with a laptop, the workstation can be set up for proper ergonomics. An optimal setup includes:

  • An appropriate chair and desk
  • The computer, keyboard and mouse in the correct positions
  • A telephone, possibly with a headset
  • Proper lighting to reduce eye strain
  • Adequate, accessible storage to eliminate tripping and lifting dangers
  • Awareness about electrical and fire hazards

Frequent travel introduces additional risks, such as those associated with driving and outdoor slips and falls. The employee must remain vigilant about the risks that go along with traveling from location to location.

No matter where your employee is located — whether it’s their home, a coffee shop or a co-working space — be sure they recognize the importance of safety.

This is not intended to serve as legal advice for individual fact-specific legal cases or as a legal basis for your employment practices.

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