The COVID-19 pandemic has had a drastic impact on how we live and work. Even though many places are looking at being able to re-open parts of their economy in the coming weeks, there is a lot of talk about the workplace being forever changed.

Back in March, public health officials across North America urged employers to encourage remote work where possible in an effort to slow the spread in workplaces and take pressure off the health care system. While many businesses are now looking at the possibility of reopening in the near future, there are also some who are considering allowing workers to work remotely on a more regular basis.

In some industries, remote work, also sometimes called teleworking, has gained popularity over the past few years, with employers using it to promote a healthy work-life balance. Those companies have adjusted, and typically have systems in place to accommodate that option. However, for other industries, this has been a new, learn-as-you-go type of experience. And unfortunately, there is not much guidance available for those companies.

Why is that, we hear you ask?  Well, as we all know, employers are responsible for providing workers with a safe and healthy workplace, but when a worker’s main office is in their home, who is responsible for making sure it meets existing health and safety standards?

Laws and Regulation

In Canada, there are no exact rules or regulations regarding work from home environments, at least not yet. As CCOHS explains it: “It is not clear how occupational health and safety or compensation laws cover teleworking arrangements. In addition, these laws are different in each jurisdiction.” Essentially, you’ll want to contact someone a little more local to find out if there are rules for your area.

However, OSHA does have some clearer guidelines for American businesses. In short, OSHA will not conduct inspections of home office, but will conduct inspections of home-based worksites, such as manufacturing operations, if complaints are made.

Best Practices

Because of the rise in popularity of remote work in recent years, as well as because of recent world events, we are likely to see more rules and regulations to help workers and employers alike navigate the world of remote work. However, that isn’t to say there is zero guidance right now. In fact, industries that have been practicing remote work regularly have been critical in helping to establish some tried and true best practices that you can you use as a foundation on which to build your own work from home policies.

Make your expectations clear and put them in writing

It is important to let your workers know exactly what you expect from them while they work from home. Regardless of where the worker sets up their office, the employer is always responsible for setting the expectations. While policies and procedures are important for any business, you will definitely want to ensure that there is a written policy around remote work and that it is easily accessible to your workers. Things to include:

  • How long is this arrangement going to last? Is this a permanent option, or is it a response to an emergency situation?
  • What are the mandatory business hours? Is remote work an opportunity for workers to work when they feel most productive, or do you expect them to put in their regular 9-5 day?
  • How will you track productivity? The biggest concern employers have with remote work is productivity. Do you want daily/weekly updates? Will you use task tracking software? Do you trust them implicitly to just get things done?
  • Is everyone aware of how to manage cybersecurity? This could be a good time for updated training on computer safety. Ensure you have updated and supplied corporate policies on data, computers and passwords, backups, etc. to all your workers. And don’t neglect your procedures on approvals, limits, authority and segregation of duties, if applicable.

Create an appropriate work environment

Not all home offices are created equally. Any company allowing work from home will need to work with workers to determine who is responsible for setting up an appropriate work from home environment. In an office setting, employers are responsible for providing everything a worker needs to get the job done. However, if a worker has worked from home before, or if they just happen to have an exceptional set-up, there may be less for an employer to provide. In some cases, employers may decide to conduct some walkthroughs of workers’ home offices to determine if they are adequate. Other employers may simply send out a list of expectations and offer to fill in the gaps, if any exist. Either way, things you may want to consider include:  

  • A space or room where it is easy to concentrate. This would ideally be a space separate from other living areas where distractions may be abundant, and where there is the appropriate level of security as required by the employer.
  • An ergonomically friendly chair and desk. For example: a desk that is the appropriate height and sturdy enough to handle the weight of any equipment that you may place on it (such as monitors, printers, scanners, etc.)
  • A work telephone line (avoid using your worker’s personal phone numbers) and voice mail services
  • Appropriate internet connection and access for the job.
  • Full control over temperature, light and sounds.

Health and safety Responsibilities

Even though there aren’t necessarily any existing regulations about workplace health and safety for remote work environments, there are some ways that an employer can help ensure that their workers are in fact working in a safe environment. 

We’ve already touched on the possibility of the employers conducting home office visits to establish what the worker needs to execute their job. And in some cases, employers may choose to take the time to visit their workers’ homes for the purpose of health and safety inspections.

Alternatively, employers could also request that workers perform their own health and safety inspections and send provide them with a checklist to fill in. Common things to inspect in a home office could include:

Fire Protection

  • Is there a smoke alarm in or around the office?
  • Is there clear access to a fire extinguisher?
  • Is there a carbon monoxide detector in areas where there are fuel-burning appliances?
  • How many exits are available and where are they?
  • Does the home office space meet safety requirements of local building and fire codes?

Emergency Procedures

  • Has an evacuation plan been established?
  • Are the first aid supplies adequate?
  • Are emergency contact numbers posted near the telephone?
  • Has a periodic contact schedule been established?
  • Does your office contact know how to reach someone near you in the event of an emergency?

Electrical Safety

  • Are extension cords in good condition and positioned properly?
  • Are cords and cables causing a tripping hazard?
  • Are outlets grounded and not overloaded?
  • Is there surge protection for electrical equipment?
  • Is there sufficient ventilation for electrical equipment?

Long Story Short

In short, an employer’s legal obligation to ensure a safe and healthy workplace for their workers may not be as strictly regulated as they are in a traditional office space, but it doesn’t mean that worker’s are to be left to their own devices. Every company needs to determine what the best approach to remote work environments is for themselves; there is no one size fits all solution right now.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that employers and workers need to work together to make this the safest, best and most productive arrangement they can.

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