Telework—or working out of one’s home—is a growing trend in businesses internationally. This article discusses the occupational health and safety hazards of telework (from the Greek tele, meaning “far off”). The employer’s responsibility to provide safe and healthy working conditions to such employees will vary depending on the contract or understanding that exists between each teleworker and employer and on the applicable labour laws.
While telework is most widespread in the United States, where it involves over 8 million workers and accounts for 6.5% of the workforce, other countries also have significant numbers of teleworkers. There are more than 560,000 in the United Kingdom, 150,000 in Germany and 100,000 in Spain. There are over 32,000 in Ireland, which amount to 3.8% of the workforce (ILO 1997).
The growing trend toward telework arrangements can be explained by the following factors:
- business efforts to reduce the time, expense and environmental impact of commuting
- legislative efforts to reduce traffic-induced air pollution trends
- changes in technology, computerization and electronic communication that enable businesses to employ workers in disparate geographic locations
- costs of maintaining large office spaces needed to accommodate large numbers of employees
- accommodation of workers who prefer telework due to physical disability, parenting needs or other family responsibilities or other reasons
- a strategy to reduce absenteeism
- recognition that workers have varying internal cycles of productivity and creativity.
Increased productivity is another factor, as a number of studies have demonstrated that telework can result in large productivity gains (ILO 1990b).
Telework may be contracted in several ways:
- The employee works full time (or part time) at home for their employer and is entitled to all of the same benefits provided by that employer to all onsite workers.
- The employee works full time for the employer but only works out of the home during a specified number of days per week or month.
- The worker is defined as an independent contractor and does not receive benefits or equipment provided by the employer.
Health and Safety Hazards of Telework
The health and safety hazards of telework can include all of the same hazards found in conventional office environments, with several additional concerns.
Indoor air quality
Most homes are not equipped with mechanical ventilation systems. Instead, air exchanges in the home rely on natural ventilation. The effectiveness of this can depend on such factors as the type of insulation of the building and so on. Provision of a fresh supply of outside air cannot be guaranteed. If the natural ventilation is inadequate to remove sources of indoor air pollutants in the home work environment, then additional ventilation may be necessary.
Indoor air pollutants in the home environment may include the following:
- natural gas or carbon monoxide exposure from inefficient heating systems or leaky stoves
- vapours and gases from photocopiers, printers or other office machines
- ongoing passive exposure to chemicals, gases or dusts resulting from renovation or construction in the worker’s home
- exposure to the effluents of other activities if housed in a multi-use building (such as an apartment building with a nail salon, dry cleaner or fast food restaurant on the ground floor).
- exposure to radon hazards if office is located in the basement in parts of the world where radon arises from construction materials or the earth.
Home electrical wiring is rarely designed to accommodate the needs of the electrical equipment typically used in telework, such as printers, copiers and other office machines. Installing such equipment without assessing the wiring limits of the dwelling could create a fire hazard. Local building codes may prohibit the adjustments necessary to accommodate increased equipment needs.
Teleworkers who rent their apartments may live in multi-unit dwellings with inadequate fire evacuation plans, blocked means of egress to fire exits or locked exit doors.
Home work environments often rely on the employee’s personal furnishings such as chairs, tables, shelves and other items to perform required tasks. Computer workstations in the home environment may not allow for the adjustments necessary for computer-intensive work. A shortage of adequate surface area, shelf space or storage areas may result in excessive bending, awkward postures, excessive reaching and other risk factors for cumulative trauma disorders (CTDs). Working in cold or unevenly heated environments can also contribute to musculoskeletal injuries.
Inadequate lighting may result in awkward body postures, eye strain and visual disturbances. Task lighting may be necessary for work surfaces or document holders. Wall and furniture surfaces should be neutral with a non-glare finish. While this glare-reducing strategy is increasingly utilized in office environments, it is not yet a standard of home decoration and design.
Full-time employment in the home environment deprives the worker of the interpersonal and professional benefits of continuous interaction with co-workers, colleagues and mentors. The isolation created by telework can prevent the worker from engaging in professional development activities, taking advantage of promotional opportunities and contributing ideas to the organization. Gregarious workers in particular may depend on human contact and suffer personally and professionally without it. The lack of administrative support services for employees who require clerical assistance presents an additional burden to teleworkers. The employer should make an effort to incorporate the teleworker into staff meetings and other group activities, either in person or electronically (tele-conferencing) as per physical and geographical limitations.
Employees with children, disabled family members or ageing parents may perceive distinct advantages of working at home. But attending to the needs of dependent family members can affect the concentration needed to focus on job responsibilities. The ensuing stress can negatively impact on the worker who is unable to perform to capacity in the home and fails to meet employer expectations. Telework should not be considered as a substitute for child or elder care. Since workers vary tremendously in their capacity to balance work and other responsibilities in the home environment, the need for support services must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis to prevent excessive occupational stress and subsequent loss in productivity. No worker should be required to adopt a telework arrangement against his or her will.
Injury and Illness Compensation
Occupational illnesses often occur over long periods of time from cumulative exposures. Prevention of these illnesses depends on rapid identification of risk factors, fixing the problem using a variety of methods and medical management of the affected worker when the first signs or symptoms of illness appear.
To date, employer responsibility for accidents and injuries in the home environment have been debated on a case-by-case basis. Most national occupational health and safety standards do not include formal policies addressing the safety of teleworkers. The serious impact of this trend must be carefully evaluated and addressed via international standard-setting.
When telework arrangements shift the employee’s status to that of an independent contractor, the burden of many responsibilities shift to the employee as well. Once the work is performed in the home by an independent contractor, the employer no longer feels obligated to provide a healthy and safe workplace, access to preventive and curative medical care for the worker and his or her family, social security, disability insurance and compensation for injured workers who need to recuperate. This trend eliminates worker benefits and protections that were won after decades of struggle and negotiation.
Protection for the Teleworker
The contract between the teleworker and the employer must address the overall work environment, safety and health standards, training and equipment. Employers should inspect the home workspace (at agreed-upon times) to ensure worker safety and to identify and correct risk factors that could contribute to illness or injury. The inspection should evaluate indoor air, ergonomics, trip hazards, lighting, chemical exposure and other concerns. Clear policy must be established regarding the provision of office supplies required for job tasks. Liability issues must be clearly defined regarding employer (and worker) assets that are lost or damaged due to fire, natural disaster or theft. Employees must be exempt from financial liability unless found to be negligent.
In addition, telework arrangements should be evaluated on a regular basis in order to identify workers who discover that working at home does not work for them.
The advantages of telework are extensive, and beneficial telework arrangements should be encouraged for job tasks and mature workers who will have much to gain by working at home. Telework has enabled disabled workers to achieve greater independence and seek professional opportunities not previously offered or available. In return, employers are able to retain valuable workers. However, the telework arrangement must ensure continuation of employee benefits and occupational health and safety protections.