How to protect your work-from-home employees from injuries that can drive up your workers' comp costs
With the case for remote work growing for many companies, North Bay legal and medical stakeholders say the issue for employers remains how to keep employees safe while working at home, without an increase in workers' compensation insurance claims.
And there's a concern that most of these workers may not have the proper office equipment at home.
“With people changing how they work and where they work, workplace injuries will happen in all sorts of new and different ways. It's up to the workers' comp system to keep up, recognize these changing times and protect workers,” said Will Ferchland, a Santa Rosa attorney who specializes in workers' comp cases. “Workers get hurt in a whole variety of ways, whether it's their fault or not.”
Ferchland pointed out an employee on the clock at home may even fall upon tripping on a children's toy and injuring a knee.
“That would be covered,” he said.
“This transition has been coming on for quite some time, said Marc Francis, another Sonoma County-based attorney who represents applicants.
“We'll see interesting patterns (associated with injuries) with more people working from home,” Francis said.
To the attorney, these workers need to get the benefit of doubt.
Although Francis calls the probability of a worker committing fraud as “catnip to claim examiners,” he estimated the nefarious practice has been proven in only about one of a thousand cases in his 32 years handling workers comp law.
“People don't usually make up these stories,” Francis said.
According to the state Department of Industrial Relations, which houses the workers’ comp division, half the injuries caused at work involve continuous, often times subtle functions such as typing and sitting.
So how does a company win if its workers are trying to avoid catching a deadly disease, work at home, but don't have a clue about the damage they're inflicting on their health?
A workforce displaced
The explosive growth in working from home means more first-timers who may not know how to set up an “ergonomically correct” workstation.
“I think it's possible we'll have more cases. When this all started, I told employers, ‘one workers’ comp claim would pay for all the chairs for their employees,” Global Workplace Analytics President Kate Lister told the Business Journal from her San Diego County office.
Lister's company reported that 88% of global workers are performing their job at home, but prior to the pandemic, only 31% had done so before. The variance of those who know what to do and those who don't may sound alarm bells to companies not wanting to face the nightmare of dealing with or disputing workers comp claims.
Workers comp is a benefit managed by the state that pays for treatment and provides a portion of lost income when an employee is injured on the job and becomes unable to perform work functions. The injury may either be acute or gradual.
An injured worker files a claim that is handled by an insurance company that determines the eligibility of such a claim. It can be disputed by a company, which pays into the system, but also may be appealed by the applicant.
Often times, a claim may lead to a settlement the worker can deny.
Through recent reforms, an employee will receive up to $10,000 for treatment, no matter whether a company disputes the claim.
As well as medical care, claims provide benefits for temporary or permanent disability with a weekly stipend, job displacement and death. Those who file don't have to be legal residents of the United States.
Understanding home setup
To avoid the scenario, workplace analysts, doctors and lawyers agree employers need to provide instructions on how their employees set up workstations at home - whether the arrangements are temporary or permanent.
“It's important to ask employees who work from home: ‘Do you have an adequate workstation?'” said Dr. Babak Jamasbi, who specializes in workers compensation-related cases.
Jamasbi, whose practice operates in six Northern California locations including Rohnert Park, has seen blatant examples of workplace neglect by employers.
“I've seen it all,” he said, mentioning an insurance agent who sustained a cumulative back injury by sitting in a broken, tilted chair for too long.