May 2020: EHS, Workers’ Comp and The Post-Pandemic Riskscape

  • While addressing Workplace Readiness, employers continue to identify novel operational risks surfacing due to the COVID-19 Pandemic. Responding to client requests, we’ll examine three discreet areas converging in front of them: (1) Telecommuter Safety Risk Management, (2) Workers’ Compensation Claims and (3) the Post-Pandemic Riskscape ahead.

In addition to the evolving Riskscape, we’ll examine the March 2020 report by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (status of the largest pre-pandemic employer of telecommuters in the world) and Telecommuter Workers’ Compensation through very recent guidance published by the Industry.

While clients outside of the U.S. may find the Workers’ Compensation information interesting or not, the Telecommuter Safety Risk Management and Post-Pandemic Workscape to come are most certainly relevant globally.

Foundationally, most employers frame the Pandemic within three phases:

  • Phase-One included the abrupt clear and present threat guiding employers to securely transition substantial employee populations to Working From Home (WFH) status.

  • Phase-Two, where employers are today, managing telecommuter exposures through leveraging Home Office Ergonomics to remotely address employee risk, safety, comfort and productivity while awaiting better data leading to more clarity on what happens next and when.

  • Phase-Three is the post-pandemic workscape to come, which employers are actively planning for.
The Post-Pandemic Riskscape

There’s been widespread hope that things will return to pre-pandemic norms at some point. At this time, however, attention to experts, critical thinking and experienced realism dictates that we’re well past the point where such hopes can remain held.

An April 9th article in Forbes “How The Coronavirus Outbreak Will Change Careers And Lives For The Foreseeable Future” elucidates some of the ways that things will be different in the post-pandemic Workscape.

An April 8th article in Business Insider “Anthony Fauci’s Vision for Battling a 2nd Wave of Coronavirus in the Fall: Be Prepared as We Should Have Been in January” conveys strong counsel from Dr. Fauci, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, useful for EH&S management and other organizational planners.

Following Dr. Fauci’s prognosis, it’s expected that this initial pandemic wave’s paralysis and disruption may subside, in phases over coming months. Other senior government medical experts advise that the first opportunity to have a tested vaccine publicly available will be sometime in 2021.

The term “initial pandemic wave’ turns out to be appropriate as we read an April 10th article in USAToday “‘Convinced’: Fauci says There Will Be Coronavirus in the Fall” confirming the same conclusion as U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield “CDC Director Redfield Warns Second Coronavirus Wave Could Be ‘More Difficult,’ Hit Same Time as Flu”

The consensus among experts is that of course our working society will return to some semblance of normality, however, it’s rational and prudent to understand that the ‘normality where we end up’ will be a ‘new normal’ not identical to pre-pandemic times.

Can we say today what is the future of COVID-2019? While we can’t currently know for sure, computer models help us understand scenarios and potential outcomes, all building on our experience of past outbreaks.

Governments are hoping that social distancing, isolation of cases, mass testing and increasing immunity in the population will slow the spread and hopefully lead to eradication strategies. History and past experience, however, suggests we may need to learn to live with this virus in various forms for years to come while, understandably, no one wants to hear this.

Two clients recently pointed us to a recent article in The Atlantic “How the Pandemic Will End”, which is a balanced sobering report elucidating post-pandemic life for people both privately and at work.

A more in-depth review of the Post-Pandemic Riskscape can be found in our April 15th article “Client Telecommuting Strategies Successfully Being Used Today” where we’ve included a lot of actionable information we’ve been permitted to share which can be implemented within a short period of time.

Case Study: Largest Pre-Pandemic Employer of Telecommuters

In March 2020, a Report To Congress was published by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management which presented the latest available data through the end of Fiscal Year 2018 regarding the Federal Government’s ongoing expansion of its telecommuting workforce: “Status of Telework in the Federal Government Report to Congress”

The 218 page report is the result of extraordinary painstaking attention to detailing all aspects of Federal Government telecommuting. Among the areas of interest, inter alia:

Why Telecommuting?“In December 2010, President Obama signed the Telework Enhancement Act into law. The Act provides a framework to enable Federal agencies to maximize the use of telework, which aids in the recruitment of new Federal workers, the retention of current employees, and the ability of the Federal Government to maintain operations in the face of events, such as weather- related emergencies and situations involving a threat to national security.” Annual cost savings were tracked and reported by each agency which amounts to billions of dollars saved over time beyond the clear impact on the environment, productivity, talent retention and worker satisfaction. Nothing here will be a revelation to private sector companies who have already crunched the numbers.

Status and Scope – As of the end of fiscal 2018, the pre-pandemic number of Federal Government Employees who were telecommuting was at least 485,000. Federal employee telecommuting, under the Act, has grown steadily year to year and by all measures is deemed “stable” with excellent results in all objectives.

Employee Training & Home Office Setup“The Act requires Federal agencies to provide interactive telework training for employees who are eligible to participate in telework and for their managers. The training must be successfully completed prior to the signing of a written telework agreement. Agencies that have their own Learning Management System will have the capability to download the training for internal use to track individual use and completion of the training. Maintaining a safe home office is the teleworker’s responsibility. The following checklist is designed to assess the overall safety of an alternative worksite:” Safety Checklist.

Workers’ Compensation Coverage – According to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management Employee FAQ, “Government employees causing or suffering work-related injuries and/or damages at the alternative worksite are covered by the Military Personnel and Civilian Employees Claims Act, the Federal Tort Claims Act, or the Federal Employees’ Compensation Act (workers’ compensation), as appropriate.”

Ergonomics Safety Best Practices and Workers’ Compensation

An April 10th article “How to Avoid Getting Injured While Working From Home”, is representative of how forward-thinking employee-centric employers are not alone in their concern about employee comfort and repetitive strain injuries. Of course, employees care and are thinking about it and talking about it with each other also.

A March 16, 2020 Business Insurance article “Coronavirus and Telecommuting: New Exposures for Employers”, is representative of what are now many articles from companies in the industry regarding guidance for employers on risk exposures for telecommuters and repetitive strain injuries. The full article is well worth reading while some excerpts include:

  • “We’re probably going to see more claims,” said Jeffrey Smagacz, Nashville-based ergonomics practice leader for Marsh LLC, addressing one area of concern as many office workers take to home to work.”

  • “This is something that opens up another exposure for employers who are not used to having their workers work from home,” he said, adding that most companies with telecommuters already know the drill about ensuring safe workspaces. Much of the risk gets leveraged with proper communication and training, he said.”

  • “In some cases, people who have always gone into an office are now working at a kitchen table that’s too high and sitting on a hard chair or sitting on a soft couch working in an awkward posture all day, Mr. Smagacz said.”

  • “More ergonomic injuries are likely from worker behaviors such as using their laptop on their couch, hunching over to see a screen and not having arm support to use the keyboard, said Deborah Roy, Falmouth, Maine-based president of SafeTech Consultants Inc. and president-elect of the American Society of Safety Professionals.

  • “If they’re continuing to do this over a period of time, obviously they’re going to start to have some discomfort,” she said. “People need to be focused on proper positioning, whether they’re working from home or in an office.”

  • “Employers may see an uptick in claims of back discomfort, particularly lower back, as well as neck discomfort and arm tendonitis, Mr. Smagacz said.”

  • ““I think the American workforce will change after this crisis,” Mr. Conn said. “There will be a massive shift in teleworking, and OSHA might have to revisit its policies if there is a much larger percentage of the workforce in the (home) environment.””

This recent article in SHRM online “Are telecommuters covered under workers’ compensation?”, summed up the exposure succinctly and consistently: “Yes. In general, an employee injury or illness is compensable under workers’ compensation if it arises out of and in the course of employment, regardless of the location the injury occurs.”

Regarding “what employers should do to manage exposures”, this article from AmTrust Financial‘s website “Workers’ Comp Trends: Are Your Telecommuters Working in a Safe Workspace?”, resonated as mainstream sound guidance for employers. The full article is also well worth reading while some excerpts include:

  • “There’s no question remote workers save employers money, as productivity and retention rise when employees are offered a telecommuting option. According to research published in Inc. magazine, telecommuters are more than twice as likely as non-telecommuters to work more than 40 hours a week.”

  • “Employers pay for workers’ compensation insurance regardless of where the employee works, because premiums are based on payroll. So the real question employers need to ask themselves, is, “are my risks effectively managed?” This is essential to protect the employee and the company from unnecessary risks.”

  • “Making sure the employee’s residence has an ergonomically-friendly workstation, in a workspace that is free from obvious fire and ventilation hazards is a smart move. And be sure to train employees in the prevention of injuries relevant to their role, such as how to prevent musculoskeletal injuries for workers who may sit at a desk all day.”

  • “These tips can help your remote workers remain highly productive, protected from unnecessary risks — and keep your business from suffering the cost of claims from preventable injuries.”
Operational Resilience: Lessons and Opportunities

As senior planners in companies ascribe to and envision ways to apply Dr. Fauci’s forward thinking on future waves of COVID-19, they’ll realize that this formidable pandemic, with its high cost in human life and economy, is also a seminal ‘organizational opportunity’ for their company.

The pandemic has forced rapid evolution of the workplace as knowledge workers have been transitioned out of traditional offices and into their homes. Companies can now leverage that abrupt change, take decisive strategic action and become stronger by engineering higher organizational resilience through supporting a higher percentage of telecommuting within their workforce ahead of a next pandemic or future new wave of the current pandemic.

  • To achieve higher organizational resilience in the post-pandemic world, it is not required to “have all knowledge worker employees telecommuting full time”.

  • Instead, forward-thinking companies who have most, perhaps even all, of their knowledge worker employees telecommuting even just two or three days every week will be in a well-engineered and highly-competitive position to pivot more quickly in a crisis, mitigate much operational disruption in a crisis and attain this strategic business-continuity strength.
Innovative Strategies Clients Are Using Today

We’ve spoken with many clients recently who have called in and are sharing how they’re leveraging their ErgoSuite platforms to extend their Office Ergonomics safety net at their facilities to their employees newly telecommuting from home.

At the high level view, clients are leveraging ErgoSuite as their front-line surface area for employees and centralized EH&S management toolset for identifying status and trends and managing outlying situations:

  • Employees are consistently and comprehensively assisted with properly setting up or tuning up their home office workstations.

  • Employees are gently coached to make best practice ergonomic behaviors routine and automatic (neutral postures, microbreaking, stretching and promoting movement).

  • Self-Assessment is required for telecommuters which provides both critical risk assessment across the enterprise as well as a personalized checklist-like report for each employee.

  • As a byproduct of the automated personalized assistance, a baseline of ergonomic metrics is assembled for EH&S use.

  • Appropriate professionals are automatically notified of outlying situations for review and resolution.

  • Automated reporting keeps EH&S apprised of and on top of organizational status and emerging trends.

For employers, Telecommuting presents both risk and opportunity in operational resilience, talent retention, business continuity, productivity, repetitive strain injury exposure and regulatory compliance.

We want to help. We’re here for you and hope that we can assist you however you need at this important and complicated time. Let us know whatever your new requirements are and we’ll meet them together.

We wish for you to be safe and well.

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