Make telework work

by Human Capital06 Feb 2012

Australian employees are scrambling* to update their working from home policies following Telstra’s multibillion dollar compensation pay out to an employee who slipped and fell while working from home. Dale Hargreaves slipped down the stairs twice in two months while working on marketing campaigns from her Brisbane townhouse. Telstra denied liability because the falls occurred outside Hargreaves' designated workstation. However, the Tribunal found the shoulder injuries she suffered were work-related.

Employer groups all but predicted the end of remote working, with Queensland Chamber of Commerce and Industry (QCCI) policy manager Nick Behrens commenting the ruling “significantly discourages employers from providing workplace flexibility", but the sky (or the home office ceiling) has not fallen in on work-from-home employees yet.

Employees who work from home, or teleworkers (Telstra winces), are on the rise. Flexible working arrangements are fast becoming an expectation from employees as more and more Australians choose to make the short commute from bed to home office or split their time between home and the conventional workplace. Six per cent of Australian workers work from home at least two days a week, and the federal Communications Minister, Stephen Conroy plans to boost their number to 12% by 2020. Fuelled by a refreshing shift in Gen Y’s attitudes to a more dynamic work space, Australia has also seen an unprecedented increase in the use of network connected devices.

Legal experts claim the Telstra ruling could force employers to conduct workplace health and safety audits in the homes, but perhaps this is not a bad thing. As more and more Australians choose to work at home employers need to protect their employees and their bottom line.

A quick Google search for ‘Australians working from home’ uncovers a list of advertisements for ‘injured at work?’ compensation law firms. The sharks are circling.

The QCCI fears pressure on employers to perform OH&S safety audits at the homes of teleworkers is "a bad outcome for everyone concerned". Not so.

“All this litigation has certainly seen a positive outcome for my business,” says Marnie Douglas, director of the national ergonomics assessment company, Ergoworks.

“Post a couple of litigation cases our requests for home services increased by 50% and home consulting is now 20% of all our office consulting,” says Douglas. “Companies are starting to realise they need to cover themselves.”

Work-from-home best practice

Home OH&S audits are a positive move for teleworkers as well. Best practice demands this growing group receives the same protection under the 2012 harmonised workplace health and safety laws as their office-bound colleagues.

Consultancies like Ergoworks fulfil a key role for employers and employees who have included teleworking in their business model by minimising the risk of OH&S mishaps in the home.

A physiotherapist, Douglas started her physiotherapy practice and ergonomic consultancy business eight years ago in the heart of Sydney CBD. Surrounded by offices, and by extension a populous of office workers chained to their chairs and glued to their computer screens, the vast majority of Ergoworks’ clients needed treatment for desk-related injuries: sore backs, sore necks and Repetitive Strain Injury.

“As a physiotherapist you are often just treating the symptoms,” Douglas says. “Then your patients go back to work and crouch over their laptop, or do whatever it was that caused their injury in the first place.”

Douglas sees ergonomic consulting as a way of preventing work-related injuries instead of simply providing a temporary fix after the fact.

“Often ergonomic consulting is a way of finding the cause of an injury. If we can identify a hazard or alter a behavior it can often speed up a patient’s recovery.”

Ergoworks brings this same ethos to home office consultancy. Douglas’ team attends the home of a teleworker and performs a thorough home risk assessment. Working from a checklist, Ergoworks assesses the home workspace and the home itself and identifies potential problems that are taken for granted by employees working in a conventional office space.

“The first thing I do is sit down at the work station, look at its location and run through an ergonomic checklist: chair support, desk space, computer screen height, etc,” says Douglas. “Then I would move onto other OH&S aspects. Are there trip hazards? Do they have a smoke alarm, fire extinguishers and a first aid kit? Do they have planned exit routes in case of a fire? What is the lighting and temperature like?”

Ergoworks then sends a report to the employee’s organisation along with any recommendations. For some companies Douglas compiles an equipment package that includes recommendations for necessities like a good chair, keyboard pad and mouse.

Estimating up to 90% of home work stations are set up badly, Douglas has a few horror stories to share. “The worst was a desk set up on the bedside table,” says Douglas. “A lap top on the dining room table with the limited support of a dining room chair and a lap top on the couch are common risky behaviours. Generally the main problem is the location of the work station and the chair. Most people don’t think about what they are sitting on.”

Online self-assessment

The proven success and increasing number of teleworkers has seen Australian employers take on or retain employees living further afield. For organisations with employees scattered across the country undertaking on-site risk assessments can be prohibitively costly ($300 per home risk assessment) Ergoworks’ online home assessment tool, Home Assess, provides a solution (at just $30-50 per head).

 The online self-assessment service has proven to be a cost effective solution for these organisations. “It’s like an e-learning module. Employees can sit at their computer, run through the online checklist and implement recommendations.” says Douglas. “Their company is then sent a report outlining what on the checklist they have done.”

Douglas believes this kind of online self-assessment is “the future of ergonomics in Australia.” While Home Assess may not spell the end for teleworker compensation claims, with any luck it might come close. 

*scrambling in a manner conducive to OH&S standards, of course.