This is really a two-handed question. On the one hand, workers need to know what their rights and protections are while working from home. On the other, employers need to know how to provide safe workplaces, even when the workplace is a remote location and how to avoid injuries and claims.

But, first of all, it is important to briefly distinguish between workers who are employees, and thus have a collection of legally-defined rights and responsibilities with respect to their employers, and workers who are independent contractors. Those situations are largely defined by contract.

Employee or independent contractor?

With the rise of the gig economy, the difference between the two can become quite muddled.  She who cranks out corporate communications from the laptop in the spare bedroom may be either, so it is absolutely essential that workers and those for whom they produce work are explicitly clear with one another about status. Gig workers, freelancers or independent contractors must generally rely on their own insurance policies if they are injured while working from home.

Employees working from home

But let us suppose that your employer has approved a flexible work agreement, under which you work from home on Mondays and Fridays. It helps with the commute – or it did until you tripped on the stairs and broke your ankle.

The critical legal question is whether the injury occurred during the course of your employment (assuming that you are not employed as a stair-climber). The Workplace Health and Safety Act of 1995 provides that all employees working from home will still be covered for workers compensation if they sustain any type of injury during the course of carrying out their work. The good news is that taking a brief break to get a cup of coffee or accomplish a task as directed by your employer may be seen as being “in the course of employment”.

A longer break, taken after logging off a work computer to accomplish a purely personal errand such as picking up the kids from school, may not be seen as being in the course of employment. Special provisions also apply to injuries that occur in other off-site situations, while on a trip taken for the purpose of work or during a regular commute to or from work, for example.

Employees also have a responsibility to see to their own safety. They should designate a relatively risk-free work area set aside specifically for employment tasks during agreed-upon hours of employment.

Employer rights and responsibilities

Employers have the same duty of care towards employees working at home as they do towards employees working in the workplace. They must make sure that an employee’s home area meets workplace health and safety requirements. Reasonable steps to ensure this include:

  • providing a work-from-home handbook policy that sets forth safety standards;
  • completing a risk assessment;
  • conducting an inspection; and
  • instructing employees to report potential health and safety issues.

At first blush, this may seem intrusive, especially the inspection, but if the employer is going to be responsible for workers compensation claims they should, to all rights, have an opportunity to mitigate risk in reasonable ways.

After the fall

Employers also have the same legal responsibilities to help employees who work at home return to work after an injury. Even when the injury was non-work related, employers must ensure that injured workers can return safely to work as soon as possible and that they are not treated unfavourably because of their injury or illness.

If you have been injured while working from home or on a flexi work agreement, or if you are an employer who wants to minimise the risk of harm to employees working from home, the attorneys at Owen Hodge Lawyers would like to help. Please call us to find out more about your rights and responsibilities at 1800 770 780.