During the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, employees transitioned into work-from-home roles in droves. As the pandemic continues into its second year, remote employment is still the new normal for hundreds of thousands of workers throughout the United States. The effects of the pandemic – and the work from home trend – on the workers’ compensation sphere were not immediately evident, but they’re now beginning to come to light in the form of work from home injuries.
At first, it seemed that workers’ comp claims might decrease as the direct result of more people working from home or being laid off as their companies downsized or closed. After all, fewer people in the workplace would naturally lead to fewer workplace injuries, right? For a while, that prediction held true, but now we’re seeing more work from home injuries. Just because the traditional office setting has shifted, that doesn’t mean that injuries won’t occur.
Defining a Work From Home Injury
In theory, an injury that occurs while you’re working from home is as justifiable and valid as an injury that takes place at your normal place of business. However, what’s true in theory doesn’t always go smoothly in practice. To put it another way, not every injury that occurs as you work from home will count as a compensable injury.
Depending on the injury itself and the state in which it takes place, as well as job-specific policies regarding work from home, they should be covered by workers’ compensation. For an injury that occurs at home to be compensable, it must happen “out of and in the course” of employment. That’s a grey area and the language is somewhat ambiguous, but it basically means that a work from home injury is only compensable if you were doing something related to your job at the time of the injury.
Examples of Work From Home Injuries
By their nature, work from home injuries are generally different from on-the-job injuries. While your office may feature ergonomic chairs with plenty of support, wrist protectors for your keyboard and mouse, and things of that nature, you won’t necessarily have those things when you work from home, particularly if you were sent to work remotely during quarantine.
Doctors, chiropractors, and physical therapists have reported a significant uptick in back-related injuries, along with shoulder sprains and strains. Remote workers are getting their work done on their couches, at their kitchen tables, their beds, and their coffee tables. They’re sitting hunched over their keyboards and laptops, peering at their monitors at less-than-ideal angles. Poor posture alone can increase the risk of back and shoulder pain or outright injury. That’s why it’s important to stand up, stretch, and take breaks throughout the day. If at all possible, people working from home should try to create a workstation that provides some amount of back support.
At the very least, it’s essential to sit in a comfortable chair, if not an ergonomic one. Sitting upright all the time has led to increased reports of tight hips, which can, in turn, cause pain in the neck, shoulders, and back. Slouching isn’t the answer, but sitting in a somewhat relaxed, lightly reclined position can help.
Health care professionals have seen even more serious work from home injuries. Remote employees have experienced injuries to their rotator cuffs. Pinched nerves in the neck and cervical spine have gone up, as well, along with lumbar disc pain and strains in the neck and lower back.
Eye strain is another common work from home injury that’s increased during the pandemic. When working from home, it’s easier to sit in front of the computer for hours without taking a break. Squinting at a small monitor, such as a laptop monitor, is another problem. Both issues can lead to eye strain and fatigue, resulting in blurry vision, frequent headaches, and dry, itchy eyes.
Not surprisingly, wrist pain and carpal tunnel syndrome have also become more common. Substandard workstations often don’t include provisions for wrist support. People who are working from home in front of their computers may be resting their wrists against the edges of counters and tables, which puts strain on them. That can cause pain, but it can also do damage to the radial and ulnar nerves, creating discomfort and even numbness.
A work from home injury such as a slip and fall may not be compensable, depending on what you were doing at the time of the injury and why you were doing it, but the examples above certainly occur “out of and in the course of” employment. If you experience an injury while working from home, your best course of action is to document everything and to let your job and superiors know right away. You need to seek treatment as quickly as possible, as well. Familiarize yourself with the laws of your state and the details of its workers’ compensation system, which will keep you informed of your rights and let you know what to expect. You can also rely on IWP’s helpful infographic that tells you exactly what to do following an injury.