Beware the Hidden Hazards of Telecommuting

ByCarrie Coolidge,

July 18, 2003 -- — One of the great advantages of telecommuting is the ability to work in the comfort of one's own home. But while working at home might offer many benefits to the employee, it also poses specific challenges — like protecting against injuries that can occur there.

"Teleworking offers a lot of benefits to both the employer and employee, but only if it is done right," says Timothy J. Kane, president of the International Telework Association and Council (ITAC), a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the growth and success of work independent of location. "Some companies make the mistake of giving their employee a DSL line and that's it. But there are a lot of other considerations to make a program successful."

A successful program includes making sure the employee is working in a safe environment. Just as at the office, at home there is the potential that employees might sustain work-related injuries and disabilities.

In fact, employers are responsible for the safety of all their employees regardless of where they happen to work, whether it is in the office or within the confines of their own home. As the size of the telecommuting workforce grows, employers large and small will have no choice but adopt a formal safety policy that includes specific items that address teleworkers.

While several companies, including IBM, AT&T and Pfizer, take preventative measures to assure the safety of their home-based workers, relatively few others have given the idea much thought at all. The lack of attention is remarkable, especially since ITAC estimates that nearly one-third of the U.S. workforce will be telecommuting by 2006.

And the home can be a dangerous place. According to the Home Safety Council, a nonprofit supported by hardware and remodeling retailer Lowe's, unintentional home injury costs the U.S. economy about $379 billion annually. It's not known how much of that was work-related, but in 1999 it was the leading cause of death for Americans ages 25 to 44, which might be considered the prime telecommuting group.

"The health and safety concerns associated with a home office environment [are] most often overlooked by both the employer and the employee," says Karl Jacobson, a senior vice president of loss prevention at Boston-based Liberty Mutual, the largest writer of workers' compensation insurance in the U.S. "But employers must approach teleworkers as they would their other workers. It is very important to have an understanding of the hazards and put some kind of safety surveillance mechanism in place."

Encouraging Safety

An adequate safety policy is one that encourages employees who work at home to promptly report injuries as well as hazard concerns, says Michelle M. Robertson, senior research associate at Liberty Mutual's Research Institute for Safety. This is often difficult to enforce because teleworkers might be reluctant to report injuries for fear they will lose their work-at-home arrangement.

Robertson recommends that employers offer guidance to their telecommuters on creating a safe home-working environment. That includes guidelines for what is an appropriate workspace and what ergonomically safe furniture and equipment should be used. If the employer provides equipment, it should be delivered and set up for the employee.

The home office should be a dedicated workspace and should be no smaller than 36 square feet, with the work surface being at least 30 inches deep. Teleworkers should have proper surge protection and power requirements to eliminate the risk of damaging equipment as well as the potential of a fire.

Precisely how to monitor telecommuter safety is a delicate matter. "Everyone is struggling with the issue of privacy and the role of the employer with regards to the home worker," says Liberty Mutual's Jacobson. "Most employers are not willing to visit the employee at their home to do an assessment because they respect the employee's privacy. They will only go if invited."

Rather than visit the home, some employers require their home-based workers to do self-inspections and send in regular written reports to their supervisor or human resources department.

And perhaps telecommuters should start with what their moms always said: Clean up your room.

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