Work From Home Injuries Count as Workplace Accidents, Says a German Court
The pandemic has physically (and ideologically) redefined the limits of work. “Work from home,” or simply “WFH,” means work happening from the bed, the kitchen, the table, the washroom. If everything in the “home” essentially counts as an “office” space, do people working from home get the rights an in-person worker is entitled to? A German court’s ruling seems to have answered this.
A man who was on his way from the bedroom to the home office (one floor below) slipped and broke his back, and is entitled to claim insurance, the Federal Social Court said in a ruling published on Wednesday. The path from the room to the home office could be counted as an official “commute” and the person was traveling along an “insured work route.”
The court said: “If the insured activity is carried out in the household of the insured person or at another location, insurance cover is provided to the same extent as when the activity is carried out at the company premises.” This is also what the employee’s case hinged on — that remote workers should receive equal protection from accident insurance as those who work in person.
In this case, it was unclear if the person was working remotely since before the pandemic or was doing so only due to Covid19. Irrespective, the person’s fall happened at the work premises, and entitled him to claim insurance because “a path to the company can also exist in a domestic area if the apartment and workplace are in the same building.”
The case raises a spate of questions that a work-from-home culture reckons with. When an employee’s home is also an employee’s work premises, what kind of rights are available to the individual? What happens if you get hurt while working at home?
For one, people working from home are vulnerable to accidents too. “Safeguards normally found in the workplace may be missing at home. Few home working spaces can replicate the environments of well-planned business spaces,” a blog noted. Moreover, “not all workers have access to a dedicated home office space, good chairs and desks, ergonomic monitors and keyboard placements, specialized lighting, other office basics that help reduce accidents.” For instance, 28% of all U.S. households reported a home injury in 2020. Most of them were due to a fall or because of being cut by something sharp. Globally, experts have seen an increase in back-related injuries, injuries to rotator cuffs, pinched nerves in the neck, lumbar disc pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, among other concerns.
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Which would mean they should be adequately covered under workers’ compensation. “An employee injury or illness is compensable under workers’ compensation if it arises out of (what the employee was during at the time of injury) and in the course (where the injury happened) of employment, regardless of the location the injury occurs,” SHRM blog explained. The language here is extremely vague; but it essentially amounts to proving a home injury is compensable if the person were doing something related to the job at the time of injury.
In most cases, employees typically bear the responsibility of proving the injury is work-related. In the present court ruling, the court noted the accident law applied to “teleworking positions”, which are “computer workstations that are permanently set up by the employer in the private area of the employees.”
Some courts have previously interpreted the injuries an employee encounters when remote working are also hazards of his or her employment. However, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) current policies let employers off the hook; noting it “will not hold employers liable for employees’ home offices, and does not expect employers to inspect the home offices of their employees.”
How just and comprehensive company policies vary across countries and work cultures. But there remains a lack of awareness among individuals too about the extent of protection. “Most office professionals have no idea about occupational safety regulations. The meticulous design and construction are taken for granted, and the professionals go about their workdays, completely oblivious to the figurative bubble wrap around them,” Forbes noted.
While the current case looked at a physical accident as a legitimate ground to claim insurance, the definition of injuries — at both work and home office — must expand to include emotional and mental ones too.